Felix Posen is passionate about secular Jewish culture. If it is not a contradiction, he is positively evangelical about it. And he has also been prepared to invest more than just time into his interest.
Posen made plenty of money in the oil, metal, minerals and coal business. And since he retired he has ploughed millions into Jewish education, but his latest project is his grandest and almost certainly his most expensive, although from the outset he tells me that he does not want to go into the money side of it.
However, The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilisation cannot have come cheap. It has so far been 12 years since the project was properly initiated. Eventually, it will comprise 10 volumes, each 1,000 pages plus — an anthology covering every aspect of Jewish civilisation and culture from the year dot until 2005.
The project involves 120 scholars working over a long time span. Posen readily admits that he does not expect the work, the first volume of which was launched last month, to be a best seller. So why put so much of his time and money into it?
For Posen, a lot boils down to recognition. He says: “If you were to look through the Encyclopaedia Judaica, you will find that the word secular does not exist. It’s disgraceful. Even if you don’t like secular Jews, you can’t say they don’t exist. To have nothing about the literature which has been written by secular Jews or for secular Jews is quite unbelievable.”
By the time Posen has finished, nobody will be able to say that. Still active — not to say driven — well into his 80s, he is determined to right the imbalance in Jewish education so that it more accurately reflects the demographics.
After all, he says, we live in a world where the majority of the Jewish population is secular but practically all of the Jewish education is religious.
“After discussions with some of my more learned friends we decided that we were probably not going to get somebody to do an anthology of books which had nothing religious in them so the thing to do was an anthology of everything that’s ever been created – religious and non-religious. Everyone seemed to like that so the idea was born.”
This was a daunting ambition but Posen set about it. “I’m no scholar but I envisaged we would gather the totality of whatever has been written. I wanted a balance between religious and secular, Israelis and Americans, men and women working on it. We arrived at a main board and they decided how to divide up history into periods and also who were the main experts in each period.”
The first volume to be published is the last in the series. It is appropriate that this covers a period — from 1973 to 2005 in which Jewish culture in a variety of forms has flourished. It will certainly be the most secular in character, whereas the early volumes will be almost completely religious. So who decided what went in and what was omitted?
“We leave it entirely to the individual volume editors. It won’t be completely uniform — that is impossible — we have 15 volume editors for 10 volumes and they do the best they can with the knowledge they have.
"There have been problems. For example Menachem Ben Sasson had to leave the project when he was made president of the Hebrew University. One of our volume editors died from cancer. But given the time that has elapsed, things have gone pretty smoothly.”
When Posen says everything Jewish is in there, he means everything. “The Sermon on the Mount is in the book. We had a long debate over whether it should be included but the fact is that a Jew called Yeshua delivered it. No one knew that later on he was going to be called Jesus.”
The library, which Posen expects to come out at a rate of two volumes a year, will eventually all be available digitally. “We have to keep up with modernity. It’s funny that when we started the process they were thinking in terms of CD roms. In that short space of time the technology has changed.”
The scope and vision of the anthology is unquestionable but it is designed to be a work of reference rather than something which will be read from cover to cover.
“Anthologies are not a popular sale. But it gives us a basis for future writing of text books. This will allow people who are interested in the field to have references through the ages.
"What should Jews read if they want to continue to identify with Judaism? This was my main purpose. When I asked the children and grandchildren of my Jewish friends what it meant to be Jewish, those who were not religious had no answer. I thought that was a terrible tragedy.”
Because he acknowledges that the subject is “not sexy” there is another book being published as a companion to the series, and to promote it. Jews and Words is the first book to be written by Israeli novelist Amos Oz with his daughter, historian Fanis Oz-Salzberger. It is also the first book he has written in English.
Posen says: “It was my idea. It’s charming, sharp and easy to read. I wanted to try to find someone who identified with what we’re trying to do. Both Amos and Fania are enormously knowledgeable.” The book is already a number-one best-seller in the national history category at Amazon.
So how does Posen define his own Judaism? “I consider myself a cultural Jew. I prefer that to the word secular. Actually I offered a reward of £50,000 to the person who could come up with a word that doesn’t have the overtones that secular does but no one has claimed it — the word doesn’t exist, which is a pity. Cultural is probably the nearest.”
Posen himself was brought up as Orthodox by his parents, initially in Germany and later in the US, where they settled in the 1930s. He retained his observance through university.
“It was only after graduating that I gave it all up. The religion had no meaning for me and I had no idea that anything else existed. I felt very empty there for a while. I grew a family and a business. And when I retired from business I decided this was an area I wanted to examine. I chanced upon historian Yehuda Bauer, who was head of the secular humanistic movement in Israel and he opened my eyes.”
Posen joined Yarnton Manor — the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. There he met philosopher Isaiah Berlin “He told me, ‘For a man as curious as you are, I’m amazed by your ignorance’. He was right.”
As Posen became more involved in the subject he started his Posen Foundation to promote Jewish cultural education around the world. He thinks the Library of Culture and Civilisation is a crucial component of this work.
“This is a mind changer for the Jewish people. There’s no doubt whatsoever this will be hugely important 20 to 30 years hence. I won’t be around to see it but I am sowing the seeds and others will take it on later.”