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ספרים בבית המדרש

Stations in secular thought

An opportunity to develop an educational vision in a series of lectures

A good education, much like a story, has its roots in the past but grows with time. In this case, we're talking about secular Judaism - the largest Jewish movement today. This is a tradition deeply grounded in both Jewish and Israeli - Zionist customs. 

Some of the key figures who have shaped this movement include Ahad Ha'am, Berdichevsky, Brenner, Berel Katznelson, David Ben-Gurion, and many others who played a crucial role in establishing Jewish settlements in Israel and developing Zionist education. These individuals form an unbroken chain of thought that spans from the Bible to modern times - including the works of Rambam, Spinoza, and numerous other thinkers.

Those interested in enhancing humanistic Jewish education should understand its origins and engage in ongoing discussions about renewal and culture. This includes exploring values and contemporary works that contribute to a shared language and authentic vision.  

Stations in secular thought - to truly deepen your roots:


Each study framework may determine an appropriate amount of time for exploring the roots of secular thought - from a single session to an ongoing process.


We offer 26 recorded sessions (available in Hebrew, with English translation underway) designed as a model for an extended learning journey.


These sessions were conducted at Beit Midrash 'a Galilean Conversation' during a comprehensive and profound exploration that uncovers new insights into the foundations of our thought.


The series was led by Dr. Oren Yehi-Shalom, and you can watch and review the attached excerpts for a better understanding of their content.

26 "Stations in Secular Thought" meetings - within the Beit Midrash 'Sicha Ba Galil' (out of which the 'Hagut' Institute was born - see "About")

לוגו שיחה בגליל

What is secularism? 

The definitions of secularism are always presented as the negation of religion. But there are a variety of positive references to the description of the secular current of thought - the largest of the Jewish currents of our time.   Worth knowing.

Is it necessary for secularism to be associated with atheism?

Contemporary secularism draws its roots primarily from European processes but not exclusively so. The humanistic foundations of secularism are also shared by certain religious currents and were developed out of religious thought.


For instance, philosophical advancements such as those initiated within the Jewish world by Rambam (Maimonides) altered the concept of God and rejected the notion that He is a physical entity - Gomel Mitzvah, etc. As a result, in essence, humanity became sovereign and an autonomous creator, yet the idea of God remained as a metaphysical concept - a boundary line concept, and naturally also as an important literary figure.


Therefore, it would be incorrect to say that secularism is always atheism, but only in relation to the traditional notion of God. Furthermore, from a practical standpoint - many secularists have some affinity towards various concepts of divinity, so from this perspective too there's no reason to equate secularism with atheism.

At the 'Hagut' Institute, educators and academics are field experts with extensive experience. We will be happy to be at your disposal and assist you in adapting content to development processes and training towards a vision, or a special interdisciplinary program. 

You can get to know some of the experts in the leading team of Hagut Institute.. 

Philo of Alexandria and Plotinus

The common denominator between these two philosophers is undoubtedly Plato.


About 2,000 years ago, Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish leader in Egypt, already wrote about the need to merge the best of philosophical thought with Israelites culture. He felt that this was required in view of the very abstract concepts of God represented by Plato and also by some of the thinkers of Jewish culture.


Philo's doctrine disappeared in the crypts of the Christian Church and it was probably only later towards the end of the Middle Ages that Azariah of the Reds revealed Philo's doctrine (see a meeting about him).


Plotinus lived over 200 years after Philo, but his deep exploration of Plato's teachings and his reinterpretations had a profound impact on Islamic thought in the medieval period. He introduced the concept of a single God who is "intelligence" or "the spirit of the world," transcending all existence yet influencing everything within its reach.


Various mystical currents embraced his teachings (Shefa, Sephiroth, etc.), while thinkers like Rambam were also influenced by Neo-Platonic philosophers inspired by Plotinus.


Secular thought is closely linked to these early stages of distancing God from physicality. Some view this as a process of secularization that emphasizes the unity of phenomena in a new way. While many biblical descriptions of God are immersed in fulfillment, some see them as mere metaphors rather than literal truths, Are these just metaphors?

Ibn Ezra - a Jewish sage symbolizing intellectual prowess in medieval Spain
During the Middle Ages in Spanish society, we can observe crucial steps towards comprehending secularism; with the Jewish elite at the forefront of philosophical discourse that incorporates Neoplatonic and later Aristotelian principles. Individuals like Ibn Ezra are proud of their Jewish heritage and perceive it as a source of truth, similar to the enlightened ideas propagated by Muslim scholars who initiated this intellectual movement in Babylon during the eighth and ninth centuries AD. Some argue that secularism originated in Spain, not just in philosophy but also in poetry addressing diverse themes such as love, wine, nature, etc., along with a shift towards more inclusive educational methods including female students, fostering a broader knowledge consciousness, and the initiation of scientific research into various fields like astronomy.

Rambam - the Secular Fathe

This series highlights Rambam's teachings as a significant influence, blending his philosophical ideas with boldness into Jewish traditional roots. His writings are grounded on revolutionary principles of Western philosophy, which propose that God represents unity and therefore necessitates reinterpretation for descriptions portraying Him as angry or retributive. Rambam's interpretation places human reason at the core, making man a rational being. These concepts were later adopted by philosophers like Spinoza and Enlightenment thinkers who sought to view humans as intelligent beings.


These new interpretations of God within Jewish thought led to reevaluation of 'mitzvot's' purpose, the Torah's significance, mankind's destiny, and more - all through a lens of naturalistic reasoning. From then on, human intellect was empowered to judge and decide.

Azariah ben Moses dei Rossi

The Renaissance period in Italy, which began in the 13th century and continued beyond that, was a pivotal moment for European secularization. Many Jewish individuals played an active role in these cultural transformations within Italian cities. As time progressed, this movement spread to Northern Europe, where it reached its peak as the Church faced internal division during the Reformation era.


In 1513, a groundbreaking Jewish scholar named Azariah 'of the Reds', emerged. His works became widely disseminated for the first time due to the advent of printing technology. Azaria's approach was characterized by historical reasoning and critical analysis of the most revered Jewish scriptures - all viewed through the lens of reason.


Baruch Spinoza - the father of immanent philosophy

Baruch Spinoza, often referred to as the "father of immanent philosophy," was a groundbreaking figure in modern thought. Unbeknownst to him, he was also one of the first secular individuals in the world, along with his close friend who shared similar beliefs and insisted on maintaining their Jewish identity outside of religious community constraints.


Spinoza's philosophical school of thought laid a crucial foundation for modern thinking due to his dual emphasis: viewing everything as part of God or nature (in line with Rambam's perspective) while remaining committed to critically examining the Holy Scriptures in this same spirit. For those who are unaware of Spinoza, they not only miss out on their Jewish heritage but also fail to appreciate the Western thought that shapes our contemporary world and way of thinking.

Immanuel Kant and the Enlightenment

Following Professor Yirmiyahu Yovel teachings, we are also allowed to assume that Spinoza's immanent thought also applies to groundbreaking thinkers such as Immanuel Kant. Contrary to Spinoza, Kant challenged the tradition of rationalist thinking according to which truth exists in nature (pure reason) and man achieves it more or less.

According to Kant, man (the subject) is a participant in this recognition and in fact constitutes quite a bit of it - without man we have no way to justify the existence of any concept. This is the basis of the "The Critique of Pure Reason". Kant's intention to "save" the empirical sciences was also translated into new currents of thought - which turn to look at the constitutive role of the human spirit. These and those represent Enlightenment views - according to which man is the important essence for understanding existence. 

Culture and Nationalism  - The Critique of Kant

Kant's philosophy was subjected to critique by thinkers like Herder who emphasized the role of community, particularly the nation, in shaping our understanding. This idea can be traced back to Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who believed that culture is a crucial link for comprehending truth from an internal perspective - meaning through language and its unique significance during each historical period. As these ideas about cultural importance and nationalism emerged, they developed alongside a more profound critique of Kant's teachings.

Shlomo Maimon and the spirit of the world

Shlomo Maimon is a significant link between Kant and German idealism, with Friedrich Hegel being the most influential among these philosophers. Their theories suggest that individuals form reality through their inner selves, resulting in an emphasis on the emergence of truth due to human actions within the world. However, Hegel expanded this idea by incorporating history into the creation of truth via human endeavors, and became one of the earliest Jewish secularists who were aware of their secular beliefs.

First wave of the Haskalah movement 

The "Haskalah movement," also known as the Enlightenment among Jews, experienced two significant waves affecting the Jewish people. The initial wave is linked to Moshe Mendelssohn and his associates in Central Europe, including Shlomo Maimon, David Friedlander, and Naftali Hertz Wiesel. Notably, Wiesel's "Words of Peace and Truth" is recognized as the first written work by a 'Maskilim,' or an adherent of the Enlightenment movement within Judaism, because it was published without rabbinic approval. This pioneering generation established a Hebrew-language magazine and founded the first Hebrew school in Berlin for general education and cultural enrichment. 

The middle educated - Nachman Karuchmel

Nachman Karuchmel was an influential figure despite not having written extensively. He played a pivotal role in introducing the Haskalah movement to Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 19th century, inspiring numerous streams of enlightenment. In the West, his teachings led to Emancipation Judaism, while in Eastern Europe, they evolved into aspects of the Zionist movement. Karuchmel rejected both assimilation and Hasidic religiosity, instead focusing on exploring the spirit that is inherent in every culture, particularly within the Jewish community's pursuit for absolute spirituality. He reinterpreted Rambam's concepts with a modern twist, sparking an intellectual desire among educated individuals to create and engage in activities using both Hebrew and German languages.

 The Enlightenment movement of the late 19th century 

During the late 19th century, the Enlightenment movement emerged. This was characterized by significant advancements in Jewish education across both Western regions of Germany (Into America) and Eastern Europe and Russia. The "Wisdom of Israel" movement played a pivotal role in this era, shaping the modern free study of Jewish culture from which Reform and Conservative movements originated. Most supporters of this movement became members of the religion of Moses within democratic nations.


In Eastern Europe, Yiddish and Hebrew education was on the rise, leading to the growth of various forms of Zionism. This minority group would see its influence increase throughout the 20th century.


The Jewish community embraced modernity in diverse ways, including contributing to the Enlightenment movement's development. However, a new trend towards Jewish seclusion from modernity and enlightenment - Orthodoxy - was also emerging.


As secularization deepened, it wasn't just seen in assimilation and Yiddish culture but also within Zionist movements and particularly among the Jews living in developing Hebrew settlements in the Land of Israel.

Zionist thinkers - on the shoulders of previous Jewish thinkers

Zionist thinkers have built upon the shoulders of earlier Jewish philosophers. Some prominent Zionist intellectuals such as Moshe Hess, Ahad Ha'am, Moshe Glikson, and others who were active in the Land of Israel under the leadership of Micah Berdichevsky, contributed to a new discourse on Jewish thought. However, many are unaware that their ideas draw heavily from previous generations of thinkers including Spinoza and Rambam.


Moshe Hess was an influential figure in establishing socialist and communist movements during his lifetime. He identified himself as part of Spinoza's intellectual lineage, which led him to diverge from Marx and Engels.


Ahad Ha'am devoted a lengthy philosophical piece discussing his relationship with Rambam, drawing the foundations for his views from this source. The debate between Berdichevsky, Ahad Ha'am, and Chaim Yosef Brenner revolved around fundamental principles of thought and the significant influences of Spinoza and especially Nachman Kruchmel and Rambam's school of thought.


The concepts of spirit and spirituality prompt a timely educational discussion: can we foster an engaging secular spirit? In our era, might heritage be reinterpreted in such an appealing manner?


Prof. Ephraim Shmueli's comprehensive study offers a hopeful perspective on this possibility, and contemporary secular humanist Jewish intellectuals continue to create innovative ideas, language, tools, and ways of expressing secular humanistic Judaism that are worth exploring, critiquing, and enlightening our understanding.

Dr. Oren Yahi-Shalom. 

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