Respecting the Wicked Child: A Philosophy of Secular Jewish Identity and Education

Respecting the Wicked Child: A Philosophy of Secular Jewish Identity and Education

Respecting the Wicked Child: A Philosophy of Secular Jewish Identity and Education

Respecting the Wicked Child: A Philosophy of Secular Jewish Identity and Education


This book provides a philosophical rationale for maintaining a Jewish identity and explains how this can be done without compromising one's liberal or secular values. Mitchell Silver believes that many third- and fourth-generation American Jews have retained only a hazy knowledge of their ethnic traditions and rich history. But as they watch their own children grow up in a materialist, multicultural, Christian-dominated American society, many contemporary Jewish parents are loathe to abandon their distinctive heritage and wish to pass it on to their offspring. Silver begins by situating the possible emergence of a secular American Judaism within the context of attempts to reconcile the imperatives of tradition and modernity. He then proposes specific spiritual, moral, and institutional pathways that could lead to this reconceived form of Judaism. While the book's emphasis is on the possibilities and values of a secular American Jewish identity, Silver also proposes a supplemental school curriculum for children that would lay the groundwork for a viable contemporary Judaism.


Gradually it has become clear to me what every great philosophy so far has been: namely, the personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir; also that the moral (or immoral) intentions in every philosophy constituted the real germ of life from which the whole plant had grown.

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

You are modern, secular, and thoroughly liberal--a child of the Enlightenment. So why be a Jew? and how can you be a Jew and make your children Jews, without betraying your Enlightenment heritage? Such are the themes of this book.

I come to this project out of personal and professional need. I cannot remember not knowing I was Jewish. I always felt that this was a very important fact about me. But it was not clear why it was important. My parents were not religious, but their irreligion was not a matter of high, or even low, principle. They just did not take it seriously. I was sent to Hebrew school, where I learned very little Hebrew and not much of anything else, either--perhaps only a superficial acquaintance with some customs that still maintained a hold on American Jewry of the 1950s and 1960s. It was plain that my parents were not very clear about why they were sending me to Hebrew school and that they were not terribly concerned with what I was taught there.

My maternal grandparents were Yiddish-speaking immigrants, but whatever significance was laid on that had to do with their newness to America. There was no conscious desire to preserve the old ways they had brought with them. Although there was a strong sense of ethnic identity, there was scarcely a concept of Jewish culture in the house. Jewish consciousness was manifested through barely articulated nostalgia, chauvinism, and paranoia. By the time I was ten, actual Jewish . . .

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