Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought

Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought

Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought

Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought


Not in the Heavens traces the rise of Jewish secularism through the visionary writers and thinkers who led its development. Spanning the rich history of Judaism from the Bible to today, David Biale shows how the secular tradition these visionaries created is a uniquely Jewish one, and how the emergence of Jewish secularism was not merely a response to modernity but arose from forces long at play within Judaism itself.

Biale explores how ancient Hebrew books like Job, Song of Songs, and Esther downplay or even exclude God altogether, and how Spinoza, inspired by medieval Jewish philosophy, recast the biblical God in the role of nature and stripped the Torah of its revelatory status to instead read scripture as a historical and cultural text. Biale examines the influential Jewish thinkers who followed in Spinoza's secularizing footsteps, such as Salomon Maimon, Heinrich Heine, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. He tells the stories of those who also took their cues from medieval Jewish mysticism in their revolts against tradition, including Hayim Nahman Bialik, Gershom Scholem, and Franz Kafka. And he looks at Zionists like David Ben-Gurion and other secular political thinkers who recast Israel and the Bible in modern terms of race, nationalism, and the state.

Not in the Heavens demonstrates how these many Jewish paths to secularism were dependent, in complex and paradoxical ways, on the very religious traditions they were rejecting, and examines the legacy and meaning of Jewish secularism today.


One of my father’s favorite memories of his mother—my grandmother— was that she was the first Jewish woman in the Polish town of Włocławek to grow her own hair. It was a small but significant rebellion. Since ancient times, the Jewish code of female modesty required married women to cover their hair, either with a scarf or, for Eastern European Jews of means, by a headdress encrusted with jewels, called in Yiddish a shterntikhl. In the nineteenth century, a new fashion of wigs swept the Jewish world, splitting the ultra-Orthodox, who denounced the new head coverings as “Gentile wigs,” from the merely Orthodox, who believed that Jewish women were still within the bounds of tradition with their heads covered by someone else’s hair. By taking off this sheitel, my grandmother declared her independence from a long-standing custom and thus, by a female gesture, heralded the beginnings of secularism.

Her declaration was hardly born of a well-conceived ideology or of conscious intent to overthrow the religion of her ancestors. She, like my grandfather, was in most respects a thoroughly Orthodox Jew, nominal followers of a pietistic Hasidic sect. Yet, in the first decades of the twentieth century, the winds of radical change began to blow through the ten-thousand-strong Jewish community of Włocławek, some two hundred kilometers northwest of Warsaw. Despite his Hasidic leanings, my grandfather joined the Mizrahi, the party of religious Jews who supported the Zionist movement. He was also instrumental in creating a Hebrew gymnasium in the town. The renaissance of the Hebrew language, so often associated with secular Zionism, did not seem to him to contradict the dictates of the Jewish religion.

These halting gestures toward modernity left a deep impression on my father. In the interwar period, when Polish Jews embraced a host of conflicting ideologies he, with his sister, joined Hashomer Hatzair, the Zionist youth movement that espoused socialism and a romantic return to nature. His younger brother gravitated in the opposite direction, also to Zionism but instead to the Revisionist Betar, the hard-line nationalists who wore military uniforms and rejected social revolution. Both movements, despite . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.