‘The First Ever Record of Everything Jewish’. An Interview with Felix Posen, Founder of the Posen Library

Felix Posen is a man deeply passionate about secular Jewish history, having himself moved from a religiously orthodox upbringing into a secular understanding of what it means to be Jewish. In this interview, Felix Posen discusses the work of the Posen Library, his definition of what it means to be a secular Jew, how he came to be one, and why an understanding of history is crucial to grasping the future.

The Posen Foundation, in collaboration with Yale University Press, has now produced the inaugural volume of The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilisation which covers a period spanning 1973 to 2005. The Library has taken over 10 years to produce, and represents ‘the first ever record of everything Jewish’, covering over 3,000 years of Jewish culture in fantastic detail. This is however, not a religious chronicle, but rather a record of the secular history of Jewish people, a people for whom a ‘text line has become a bloodline’.

Felix Posen, Jewish culture, Posen Foundation

The Posen Library

INTERVIEWER

The Posen Library is a massively ambitious undertaking; the scope of the entire project covers the history of Jewish culture from 333 BCE to 2005 CE. How did the idea for a complete Library of Jewish civilisation begin and why is it necessary?

FELIX POSEN

The idea to produce a complete ‘library’ of Jewish culture began with the question of how one could collect and gather the totality of what had been written on the subject of Judaism as culture, but excluding the well-known religious tomes, such as the Bible, Talmud, and other later works such the Shulchan Aruth, etc. After consulting with the leading academics in the field of Judaica, it was felt that to create a library consisting of only the non-religious, cultural Jewish books since time immemorial, would be an impossible task. Thus a decision was reached that the easiest way to achieve this goal would be to gather everything – after which one could extract the religious and the non-religious at will. This was the origin of the huge anthology project.

INTERVIEWER

What caused you to focus your philanthropic efforts on cultural, secular Judaism?

POSEN

Having been brought up, and taught, within the confines of Orthodox Judaism, but subsequently having given up the religious part of that inheritance, I asked what was left and how could one study it? Now, with the addition of demographic studies showing that more than half of the world’s Jews self-define as non-religious, it seemed to me that this was the target area that required most help.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define ‘Jewish secularism’?

POSEN

Jewish secularism is a way of life adopted by what are now the majority of Jews in the world, many of whom do not necessarily even realise it. What happened in the past, starting with the Enlightenment in the 18th century, was that some religious Jews began to live lives that were less and less religious; abandoning religious precepts one by one, such as men no longer going to work wearing their Payots (sidelocks), giving up eating kosher, attending synagogue less and less – essentially becoming less religious in order to be more a part of the general population among whom  they lived.

INTERVIEWER

Why is it that the secular Jewish have historically been so under-represented?

POSEN

Jewish secularism may have started with Spinoza in the 17th century, although at first evolved very slowly, and mostly just by the abandonment of Jewish learning and practices. It was only in the 19th century that more serious efforts were being made to not only define the subject, but also write about it. Only in the 20th century did some educators start to think about how one could teach it. The end result, thus far, is the phenomenon that the majority of Jews in the world today are no longer religious and, on the whole, either undereducated, or even uneducated in their own culture. They therefore also stopped bothering to congregate, or be represented in the various Jewish world congresses – something that really did not change until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. In fact, to this day, secular Jews are still under-represented.

INTERVIEWER

Can you recall a Jewish text, religious or otherwise, which had the most significant impact on your own life?

POSEN

There was no single text, religious or otherwise, that made a significant impact on my life. As I started to examine what Jewish literature existed outside of the religious, I met some very learned academics interested and knowledgeable in the field of Jewish secularity. They introduced me to numerous writers that had a great influence on me; Spinoza, Ahad Ha’am, and Berdichevsky, etc.

INTERVIEWER

Having been born into a family adhering to Orthodox Judaism in pre-war Germany, how did you navigate your own transition from being a religious to secular Jew?

POSEN

My own transition from Orthodox Jew to secular Jew was, in a sense, very quick – after the Holocaust I realised that, for me, religion made no sense. The stories told to me by returning first cousins from Bergen Belsen, and the death march from Auschwitz, some of whom boarded with my parents in the apartment in which I was still living, shocked me beyond belief and I said to myself that there could not be a God who would allow such inhuman treatment of children, women, and men. It was a sudden decision, made swiftly after I left university (where I had maintained my Orthodox way of life).  So, in a sense, by deciding to eat my first hamburger, in a non-kosher environment, I knew that religion could no longer be a part of my life.

INTERVIEWER

Why is it that you feel that secular Jews are particularly ignorant of their history and culture? Could the same assertion of ignorance be made of English people, for example?

POSEN

The ignorance of Jewish history and culture among secular Jews is legion, despite the fact that these are the ones who overwhelmingly win Nobel Prizes. The issue has been that hardly anyone has bothered about the subject, and the few weak attempts to create schools for the non-religious Jews were mostly unsuccessful. Now, of course, one cannot assert that the same degree of ignorance could be made of the British – or any other nationality – because nearly all of them have schools that teach their country’s language, culture, literature, and history etc –  something that has never been done for secular Jews, until now.

 INTERVIEWER

Do you feel that improving the general understanding of Jewish culture can help to mitigate anti-Semitism?

POSEN

No, I do not believe that a general understanding of Jewish culture is likely to mitigate antisemitism. First of all I cannot be sure how many non-Jews would be interested in learning about general Jewish culture (although, interestingly, our first courses in thirty or so American universities threw up the phenomenon that in some of the classes more than 50% of the students were not Jewish – so clearly there was an interest among many non-Jews to learn about Jewish culture, about which they may not previously have heard). I have also been involved in the study of antisemitism for over thirty years, and the origins of this evil are many, and go back millennia.   The factors that constitute antisemitism are too numerous to make an assumption that a general understanding of Jewish culture might mitigate those sentiments – although one could hope that might be the case. We will have to wait and see.

 INTERVIEWER

Is there a difference between a Jew who studies Jewish culture and a non-Jew who does the same?

POSEN

No, I do not believe there is any difference between a Jew or a non-Jew studying Jewish culture.   That would be like asking if there is any difference between a British, Chinese, Italian, or South African student learning about English culture.   It is a subject worth learning to those who consider it to be so.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give a brief appraisal for Jews and Words and describe how it fits into the broader work of the Posen Foundation?

POSEN

The idea of inviting well-known Israeli writer Amos Oz, and his renowned and very capable Israeli historian daughter, Fania, to simultaneously write and publish a stand-alone, belletristic companion volume to the first volume of the anthology project was to tell the potential readers of the anthology that it was not merely a collection of facts and figures. We wanted to demonstrate that culturally educated Jews, such as Amos and Fania, could create a magnificent piece of literature on the basis of an intense knowledge of Judaism as culture, rather than only as a religion. The enthusiasm and popularity with which Jews and Words has been received in the marketplace since its very inception show that this decision was the right one.

What it also might also indicate to the general intelligent, but Jewishly-uneducated Jewish public, is that if one were to study aspects of Judaism as culture one might be able to better understand the richness and meaning of being a well read, and educated cultural or secular Jew. It also shows the non-Jewish world the immensity of Jewish cultural achievement.

INTERVIEWER

Based on the vast quantities of material compiled for The Posen Library of Jewish Civilisation, how do you predict Jewish culture will develop in the future?

POSEN

I am not a prophet, and have no idea whatsoever how Jewish culture will develop and evolve in the future just because a work such as the anthology is available. My hope, obviously, is that with the advent of the first ever secular Jewish school courses in Israel – and soon to follow in some diaspora countries – that there will be an increasing demand from the majority of the secular Jewish population to learn what it means to be a Jew by studying their own huge, varied, and rich literature and culture. This is no different to any country teaching its own literature, history, and culture, and it is an extremely  interesting and rich topic in itself for those who take the time to read and study it. It is not meant to be in competition with religious day schools, which are still needed for those who wish to grow up as religious Jews – all we are talking about is making facilities available that are the non-religious equivalent of what religious Jews have had for many centuries.

The training of teachers in the unique Ofakim programme at Tel Aviv University, together with basic courses created by the Posen Foundation in Israel, and the diaspora, in universities will, hopefully, create a continuing and permanent interest in the immensely fascinating and rich field of Judaism as culture.

Buy The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization v. 10

Posen Library WebsiteJews and Words | More on Secularism from Yale Books

The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization v. 10

The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization v. 10

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