Miriam Shaviv has a fascinating book review in the Forward on the Spanish “Jewish Christians” or “Marranos” who, up until the expulsion from Spain in 1492, accepted baptism and outward life as Christians while maintaining a secret, internal loyalty to Judaism. They did this under the threat of intense persecution. Some practiced Jewish rituals in secret. Others mentally “nullified” their Christian observances. Some tried not to think about religion at all and instead concentrated on worldly matters like business and politics.
It’s a historical phenomenon but also a very contemporary one: spiritual and personal identities split between the demands of competing world views. Writes Shaviv about Yirmiyahu Yovel, author of The Other Within
Yovel…sees split identities as “a basic structure of the human condition,” but one that was legitimized only in the modern era. “In earlier times,” he says, “split identities were considered illicit and illegal, a grave social and metaphysical sin punished by the Inquisition (and later, by nationalism and similar ‘integralist’ movements).” In this respect…the Marranos were harbingers — and perhaps, to some extent, catalysts — of modernity.
You may have followed the “Craigslist killer
” story in which one intriguing angle was the question of whether the accused, Phillip Markoff, is Jewish or not. It turns out he has a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother
, who divorced. He was raised by his mother and a step-father, “occasionally” attending their Catholic church.
The many people we all know with mixed parentage, Jewish and Gentile, are just the most obvious and outward example of the contemporary split identity. Even those without such ambiguity in their biological background are subject to competing loyalties that go deeper and are less readily resolvable.
The split identity that is the subject of much of my own writing is that between Judaism (or Christianity), on one hand, and secularism on the other. Sometimes I see Jews importing Christian criteria into their evaluation of Jewish trends and ideas. Or rejecting Jewish ideas (like intelligent design) because, from the perspective of ignorance or prejudice, they seem “Christian.” More often I see Jews (and Christians) unknowingly importing secular assumptions or premises into their religious thought.
An example would be materialism. The debate about Darwinism, which of course has profound social implications
, is driven in part by a prejudice that science, rather than a search for truth, is some kind of game that can only be played according to the rules of materialism or naturalism. Only material explanations of phenomena can be entertained, even if the scientific evidence from the physical world goes against this.
More broadly, the most profound illustration of a split in identity is one that goes on in all of us, I suspect even among socially isolated groups (like the Amish or ultra-Orthodox Jews). It is between the authority of tradition and the authority of secular nihilism.
The culture around us all, the air we breath, is largely nihilistic, in the sense of granting no recognition to spiritual realities. In nihilism, moral ideals are shared illusions. We may obey them, because we feel moved to do so for whatever reason, maybe because our genes urge us on. But they possess no ultimate or transcendent authority to command or judge us. How could they?
Even those among us who identify with a faith are inevitably pulled by the force, the prestige, the lure of the secular. It’s probably only if we are really honest with ourselves, or if we are saints and consciously resist the force and win the battle (count me out), that we can admit this.
The force is insidious and it is a corrupter. It affects the way we live in the most basic practical matters of ethics, morality, and interpersonal relationships.
But there is a flip side that’s more encouraging. It is that the influence of religious faith, another if diminished part of our split culture, fights back, fights on our behalf, even if we think we are not “religious.” It fights for our souls. Even people who are spiritually asleep, who don’t give a thought to ultimate questions, or who do give them thought but come down on the secular side of the great debate of our times — they too feel the pull, without knowing it, of the holy.
And they respond — often very impressively, in a way that should shame those of us with a religious loyalty.