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Monday, 15 August 2016

IS SECULAR JUDAISM AN OXYMORON?

It certainly is, as Judaism is a religion! Let's read a cogent explanation...


Secular Judaism is an Oxymoron

Judaism is a religion

by David Novak

“Secular” Judaism, sometimes called “Humanistic” Judaism, sometimes called “Cultural Judaism,” is an oxymoron. That is, the adjective “secular” and the noun “Judaism” that it modifies contradict one another. Thus to assert the existence of “Secular Judaism” is like asserting “dry water” or “wet fire.”

Judaism is a Religion

The contradiction here lies in the fact that “Judaism” is a religion; it is the body of doctrines and practices that constitute the relationship of the Jewish people with the God with whom this people lives in an everlasting covenant (brit). In fact, in place of the rather modern term “Judaism” (yahadut), it is more accurate in the context of Jewish tradition to speak of Torah.

The Torah is the written and oral constitution of the covenant between God and this people Israel (keneset yisrael). Therefore, the inherently contradictory character of “Secular Judaism” becomes more apparent if one were to say Secular Torah, that is, when secular means “[t]he metaphysical rejection of the transcendent” (as Rebecca Goldstein correctly observes in her otherwise problematic paper).

The way out of this conundrum for some Jewish secularists has been to go back to the Hebrew word usually used to denote “Judaism”–yahadut–and translate it more literally as “Jewishness.” This move itself goes back to the term Yiddishkeit (often used, though, by very traditional Jews of East European extraction to designate their intensely religious Judaism).

What this linguistic turn seems to accomplish is to separate traditional Jewish belief from practices that are identifiably Jewish; in other words, to secularize them.

Who Are “Secular Jews” Then?

There are self-styled “secular Jews,” for example, who celebrate Passover (which sociologists tell us is the Jewish ritual observed by more Jews today than any other) not as God’s redemption of Israel from Egyptian slavery but, rather, as the autonomous acquisition of freedom and sovereignty by the Jewish people in the founding event of their “civilization” (a term favored by the equivocally secularist Mordecai Kaplan, and which is as vapid as the term “values” employed by the unequivocally secularist Rebecca Goldstein).

Nevertheless, the question is not only how much this deconstruction of traditional Jewish practice corresponds to the Jewish tradition as a whole (whose two constituting documents are the Bible and the Talmud), but also how coherent this kind of Judaism or “Jewishness” really is (a “philosophical incoherence” Goldstein herself honestly admits). So, if Passover is a cultural event, which does not require religious commitment to be properly celebrated, why does one even have to be “Jewish” to celebrate it, that is, when one’s very connection to the Jewish people does not have the rigorous consistency of religious norms to define it?

Indeed, many of us know or know of non-Jews (usually Christians) who claim to be celebrating Passover. (That is why, by the way, I don’t like Passover celebrations conducted by non-Jews among themselves, even though I see no reason why a non-Jew cannot be a welcome guest at the Seder of a Jewish friend.)

I have no objection to calling something like Passover a cultural celebration, that is, if one keeps in mind that the words “culture” and “cult” (in the sense of religious worship) come from the same root. And, in fact, I know of no historic culture, as distinct from ideologies such as “secularism,” in which religion (as defined above) is not central. That is why so-called “cultural Jews” not only misunderstand Judaism or even “Jewishness,” they also misunderstand what culture is essentially even more so.

The same type of misunderstanding can be found among Jews who believe and practice “Humanistic Judaism,” since the uniqueness of being human, for Judaism, is that humans are created in the image of God, which for me (following my late revered teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel) means that humans are the objects of unique divine concern, that they alone of all God’s creatures can be the recipients of revelation (Avot 3.18).

To be sure, one need not be a kabbalist, for whom Judaism (the Torah) is the only reality and that reality is nothing but God, to see that a Judaism or Jewishness devoid of a strong God-connection is bound for philosophical incoherence and historical oblivion.

Conclusion

In conclusion, let me state that I in no way want to read out of the Jewish people or have anyone shun secular Jews. In the case of Jews who have converted to another religion (meshumadim), normative Judaism always keeps the door open for them to return to the fold. All the more so, then, secularist Jews (whose secularism is ideologically principled and not just casual), who have not rejected Jewish religion for anything else (with the possible exception of those Jews for whom their non-Jewish ideology has become a substitute religion in fact), should not be forgotten or shunned.

And this should be done even more so with the many Jews who only call themselves “secular” because, for them, this means they are not “Orthodox,” even though many of them will often attend synagogues and practice Jewish rituals there and at home, consciously as religious acts, however haphazardly. In Israel today, such Jews are usually called “traditional” (mesorti) to distinguish them from doctrinaire secularists (chilonim).

The Talmud (Nazir 23b) teaches that traditional Jewish practice done for the wrong reason (or an inchoate reason) is to be encouraged nonetheless, since it might very well lead to practice done for the right reason in the long run. Along these lines, I myself do everything possible to befriend such secular and secularist Jews (the latter, who might be what rabbinic tradition called mumarim or “heretics”), not as a form of proselytism (which could imply that Judaism is essentially a matter of choice rather than one of divine election) but, rather, to show them that my being Jewish as their being Jewish is because God elected my and their Jewish ancestors, and thus me and them too along with them. (In fact, I even show similar concern for Jews who have become apostates by their conversion to another religion.) This makes our Jewish differences matters of degree, not of kind.

So, what I try to show them, by example rather than by precept, is that Jewish identity is most precious, and that it is best lived in the coherent and sustainable way that Judaism has structured through halakhah and informed by theology (aggadah broadly conceived). It is to be hoped that this will show that this life is ultimately (if not yet immediately) lived for the sake of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.


  • ...and here's another view on the matter:

Untangling the Oxymoron of the Secular Jew

by Jacques Berlinerblau, on forward.com, 12 September 2012

"Secular" is to “Jew” as “holy” is to “Torah,” as “noisy” is to “grogger,” as “crotchety” is to “Larry David.” Which is another way of saying that this coupling of adjective and noun sounds logical, natural and familiar. Could the same be said of a shiduch on the order of “secular Southern Baptist,” or “secular Muslim”?

Many Jews, for their part, have adopted the adjective with verve. Consider that there exists a small but vibrant religious denomination colloquially known as Secular Humanistic Judaism. Consider that the 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey discovered that a robust 44% of American Jews by birth described themselves as “secular” or “somewhat secular.”

That figure, astonishingly, was twice as high as the one tallied by Buddhists, the nation’s second most secular faith. One of the demographers who worked on that study, Ariela Keysar, recently noted that the number vaulted up to 64% when the categories were jiggered a bit. Members of the Tribe, for better or for worse, are the most secular-friendly religious group in America!

Somewhat problematically, this groundbreaking AJIS study never actually defined the term “secular.” Which leads us to wonder: What exactly do its respondents, and American Jews in general, think the s-word connotes? Having just completed a book about the rise and fall of American secularism, permit me to hazard a few guesses.

My hunch is that most Jews understand the adjective in three distinct, though sometimes overlapping, senses. The first is nonbelief and skepticism. Thus Jewish atheists and agnostics, whether they are affiliated with a denomination or not, tend to refer to themselves as secular. This is not the place to indulge in a history of Jewish atheism, though my own research leads me to believe that its initial appearance as a coherent and collective phenomenon can be traced to the post-Marxist ferment of late 19th-century Europe.

Next, many Jews may think of the word as a stand-in for religious moderation.To put it more bluntly, they conceive of secular Judaism as non-Orthodox Judaism. That ambiguous latter designation leaves an awful lot of theological terrain to inhabit. This moderate Jew could be one who does not adhere to the laws of kashrut but attends synagogue regularly; one who is intermarried and self-identifies as Jewish; one who hasn’t set foot inside a synagogue in the quarter-century since her bat mitzvah, or one who thinks of himself as a “cultural Jew,” among countless other possibilities.

This brings us to a third category, which, historically speaking anyhow, lies closest to the term’s deep roots in Christian political philosophy. Here the secular Jewish American is a person who displays a thoroughgoing skepticism about any and all entanglements between Church and State.

In so doing, she or he ratifies a precious intuition articulated by Protestant thinkers like Martin Luther, Roger Williams, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. All these diverse figures understood that any coupling of religion and government tends to be catastrophic for either or both. Jews, with their centuries of infelicitous experiences in Christian and Islamic host societies, need not be persuaded of the truth of this proposition.

With each passing decade of the 20th century, American Jews gravitated to a variant of the secular worldview, known as “separationism.” From the days of Franklin Roosevelt to the end of the millennium, the vast, overwhelming number of Jews in this country were committed separationists. For them, this form of disestablishmentarianism emerged as something like the 614th commandment of their faith. “The Jews,” a 1966 Commentary article lamented, “are probably more devoted than anyone else in America to the separation of Church and State.”

Indeed, the rise of separationist secularism in the mid-20th century is almost unthinkable without their contributions. Wherever a public school prayer was deemed unconstitutional, or wherever a governmental institution was de-Christianized, one could find Jews. Organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and especially the American Jewish Congress secured groundbreaking victories in the high courts.

Among the occupations, Jewish public school teachers (and their powerful unions), journalists, physicians, academics, entertainers and even pornographers all had obvious, guild-specific interests in opposing any manifest or tacit form of Christian establishment. And then there were the individual movers and shakers of the separationist vision. Most notable here was Leo Pfeffer — a combination of a jurist, a scholar and a master strategist. His arguments in front of the United States Supreme Court shaped the separationist vision for decades to come. As he wrote in one of his many studies of the subject, “Complete separation of church and state is best for church and best for state, and secures freedom for both.”

Yet one need not look any further than our three branches of government to understand that Pfeffer’s insight has lost traction. The legal moorings of separationism have been undermined at least since Judge William Rehnquist’s dissent in the 1985 Wallace v. Jaffree case. No fewer than four justices on today’s court would seem to concur with Rehnquist’s demurral that the wall of separation “is a metaphor based on bad history” and “should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.” For some contemporary court watchers, it’s not a matter of if the wall collapses, but when.

The legislative chamber, for its part, is teeming with conservative Evangelicals who speak openly about America being a “Christian nation.” In fact, the Republican Party itself — as the primary perorations of candidates like Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann made clear — seems hell-bent on dismantling the wall, brick by brick.

As for the executive branch, a Democratic President has presided over the supersizing of George W. Bush’s Office of Faith-based and Community Initiatives. Although comparatively restrained, Barack Obama invokes Christ in his rhetoric in ways that would have made John F. Kennedy and midcentury Jewish separationists despair.

As goes America, so go the Jews. Secular Judaism itself (no matter how you define it) is experiencing its own moment of despair. Whereas more than half the Jews in this country feel comfortable calling themselves secular, my guess is that the number would have been much higher a few decades ago.
Two factors account for this change. The first is the political and demographic recrudescence of Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy in the United States and Israel. As far as the ultra-Orthodox are concerned, if Jews are going to worship any wall, it’ll be the Kotel in Jerusalem. That these same groups actively seek government funding for their yeshivas represents a complete inversion of the midcentury Jewish separationist vision.

The second factor is the graying and soon-to-come passing of that vibrant, incandescent 20th-century generation of secular Jews. Fewer and fewer public school teachers are of the Mosaic persuasion. The American Jewish Congress was Madoff-ed into oblivion. The other AJC and the ADL are still concerned with the First Amendment, though their missions have drifted toward other pressing issues. The vaunted secular-Jewish intelligentsia, be it composed of journalists, professors or even pornographers, is much smaller, less brash and less influential than it once was. Larry David, after all, is pushing 66. Philip Roth celebrates his 80th birthday next March.

Yet: Scads of Jewish-Americans are comfortable referring to themselves as secular. No group in America has given as much to — and benefited as much from — that old Protestant vision/suspicion of religious establishment. And no group, I would wager, could play such a pivotal role in that vision/suspicion’s revival.
Secular Judaism - Logo

  • Finally the "humanistic" view:
Can you have Judaism without God?

by Jeremy Havardi, The Guardian, 29 December 2009

Humanistic judaism is an alternative that offers ritual and community, without belief in the supernatural

At first glance "secular humanistic Judaism" would appear to be the ultimate oxymoron. The Jewish faith is monotheistic and its great corpus of liturgies all revolve around the worship of a supreme being.

By contrast, humanists interpret the world without any reference to God. They are children of the Enlightenment who rely on science and reason to structure their understanding of the world. In the words of one Orthodox scholar, secular Judaism is like "vodka and tonic without the vodka". But maybe appearances are deceiving.

Judaism is more than a binding religious doctrine between man and the supernatural. It should be seen as a civilisation encompassing the ethical, social, political and historical life of the Jewish people, with religion merely part of the package.

As humanist Jews, we reject prayer, worship and most traditional religious ritual. But this does not mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Instead there is a focus on offering a secular interpretation of Jewish texts, religious holidays and practices to make them fit in with a more naturalistic perspective.

Instead of revering the Torah, the sacred code of rabbinic Judaism, as an infallible guide to human conduct, humanists will choose those parts that are congruent with modern ethics. For humanists, the second half of the Ten Commandments, in particular, the injunctions against murder, theft and adultery, remain sacred principles while other Biblical precepts, such as stoning adulterers and killing homosexuals, are alien and must be rejected.

Accordingly, the Jewish scriptures are viewed as the product of fallible human minds; a valuable socio-historical resource rather than a revealed supernatural drama. This is backed by historical scholarship which has revealed that the five books of Moses were written over a number of centuries, not created by divine fiat.

This emphasis on interpersonal behaviour rather than arcane ritual resonates with traditional Jewry. One of the most famous rabbinic sages, Hillel the Elder, was once asked by a non believer to spell out the entire Torah while standing on one foot.

Hillel did as he was asked and responded simply: "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn." No humanistic Jew could have put it better!

Jewish festivals and holidays are also central to humanistic Judaism except that they are detached from any supernatural association. On Pesach (Passover), we celebrate an inspiring account of liberation from bondage while being reminded about the ongoing struggle for freedom around the globe.

Shavuot, traditionally a celebration of the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, is re-interpreted as a joyous reminder of the power of words in the Jewish tradition. The festival of Purim reminds us of the power of human courage in facing down loathsome adversaries, in this case the Persian rogue Haman.

The weekly sabbath is a holy event in the lives of traditional Jews with its reminder of divine rest following six days of creation. For humanists, it is an opportunity to celebrate the extended family and the wider kinship with fellow Jews that makes survival possible. Supernaturalism is replaced by human centred values, though without abandoning Jewish practice.

Humanistic Jewish communities also offer life cycle events for birth, puberty, marriage and death, again with an emphasis on secular values. In the humanist philosophy, death is the final part of life and allows the community to pay tribute to the departed. It never seeks solace in an unknown and remote creator.

Naturally Jewish traditionalists will never accept a version of religion shorn of transcendence and divine redemption. To the Orthodox mind, secular Judaism appears stifling and arid, as well as a contradiction in terms.

But for secular minded Jews, it offers a chance to embrace a rich Jewish heritage without betraying rationalist principles. Vodka and tonic without the vodka? No, this is, to pardon the pun, the pure spirit of Judaism.

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