The Phenomena of Secular Jews

11 Aug

How does one become a secular Jew? In Israel the term has been thrown around for quite a long time – the “hilonim” –  so they are called.

In a recent report published in the Washington Times online, a survey has indicated that while only 6 percent of all Americans identify themselves as secular – that is, they disbelieve in God and do not follow any religion, one-third of all Jews fit into that secular category.

That is quite a large number! Close to two million!  Two million American Jews that do not believe in God, and do not follow Judaism. 

While it is true that percentage-wise Jews do often excel way beyond their numbers, it is unfortunate that in this category Jews have felt the need to excel as well.

How did we get to this point?

Here’s what I am thinking: Jews did not become secular – Judaism became irrelevant to them, and so they were no longer able to place themselves within the fold.  While for many, the draw of tradition, the connection to something that goes back hundreds and hundreds of generations has great appeal, for others it just does not. 

Secularism – “hiloniut” – is not a rebellion – it is a cry for meaning, for relevance, for vision, and for contemporary purpose: things they cannot find in the Judaism that surrounds them.

On the last day of Moshe’s life, he has much to tell the young nation on the threshold of meeting their destiny in the Land of Canaan.   Nearly the entire book of Deuteronomy is dedicated to reminders and inspiring messages. I focus here one of many jammed packed verses:

The entire matter that I command you, you are to guard in order to perform, do not add to it, and do subtract from it. (13:1)

Traditionally, the sages taught us that this verse bears an important message: it is to be understood as an admonishment not to add to the commandments nor to subtract from them…

Not to sit in the Sukkah for 8 days when the Torah commands only 7 (this is complicated by the two day observance of Shemini Atzeret in the Diaspora, but that’s a separate issue)

Not to shake 5 species, when commanded in only 4.

Not to put 5 Torah portions in the tefillin where only 4 are required.

Not to add a fourth blessing to the birkat kohanimwhere only three are listed in the Torah text itself…  and so on…..

In other words, the sages understood that Moshe was telling us not to manipulate biblical law and observances in ways that add or subtract from what the Torah teaches.  Nonetheless, in another place (17:11) the Torah does give the sages rabbinic licence to add rabbinic laws, but not to call these innovations Torah law (again, complicated issue, for another time).

Actually, I think there is a lot more to this verse, and others like it.

I suggest that  Moshe understood that the nature of the teachings he was going to present to the people – the nature of a written document of any sort – is that no matter what you do, it quickly becomes open to interpretation. 

On the one hand, there will be those who will attempt to read it on many levels, to suggest that it cannot be easily understood – everything word, every letter has significance, and only those who are steeped in learning can even begin to fathom its meaning.

On the other hand ,there will be those who subject it to criticism, who will look for its every seeming inconsistency, every flaw, every indication that it is less than divine, that it is the work of charlatans, or a people looking to justify its self-aggrandizement or the national agenda of its leadership.

In either case, we don’t do the Torah justice.

In the first case, seeing the Torah as a secret code that needs to be unlocked is an act of “adding to the Torah” in a way that distances it from the people, that renders it aloof and almost untouchable. 

In the second case, the Torah is rendered so pedestrian that it is no longer worthy of taking notice of – it’s a important masterwork that serves as an interesting source for an anthropological study of the history of a nation – but so are Shakespeare’s masterpieces.  This is a direct infringement upon Moshe’s second warning: “and do subtract from it. “

I would like to suggest that on the simple pshat level here, Moshe is persuading the people to  preserve the straghtforwward meaning of the words he has conveyed to to them in the Torah.  Never stop learning the Torah text, year after year, gleaning from the simple pshat of the text eternally relevant and meaningful truths, sublime visions, and important lessons for contemporary living. These truths will speak to Jews in all generations…let them read, and let them find deep personal meaning in its teachings. 

Moshe is encouraging the people to preserve the straightforward life lessons articulated directly and through the Torah’s many narratives. 

Preserve it, and you will find reason to observe it. 

Expand it it too far beyond its straightforward teachings, or detract too much from its holiness, reading it as just another historical document – in either case, you run the risk of making it irrelevant to the masses of Jews. 

Millions of Jews today have unfortunately absorbed the message that the Torah is beyond them, or that it is anachronistic – from another time – out of step with our world.  It might very well be that those who have had the very best of intentions in their pursuit of  the truth have, over the years, taken away from the Jewish people the wonder and awe that can come from simply reading a passage in the Torah and deriving from it personal meaning.

Bibles are everywhere to be found, translated and accessible…but how many of these secular Jews have taken the time to read the world’s best-seller? 

But, then again, why should they? For all they know it is at the best an ancient book of irrelevant, complex laws, and at worst, a literary forgery.

Jews must be given more opportunities to dialogue directly, one-on-one with the Torah text.

Jews should be encouraged to go back again as adults and read through passages in the Torah  and the Prophets – without the esoteric midrashic commentary or rabbinic elaborations; doing so, with open eyes, they will, I believe, surely find therein the timeless words of inspiration, meaning, vision, and contemporary relevance for which they have been searching.


2 Responses to “The Phenomena of Secular Jews”

  1. Larry Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 1:29 am #

    Actually, I know many people who identify themselves as hilonim and believe in God but do not believe in or practice Judaism as it is generally practiced and taught.

    With only rare exceptions, orthodoxy has been presented as an endless series of rules, with rabbinical decrees “putting a fence around the Torah,” thereby adding, often unnecessarily to a complicated code. Many people view talmudic Judaism as a precursor of the Histradrut, a kind of over-complicated system to provide full employment for rabbis.

    Once Jews left the shtetls, they often quickly and joyously dropped the “yoke of Torah.”

    Probably the most often cited criticism are the dietary laws. Somehow a prohibition against paganism, not “boiling a calf in the milk of its mother” (this was part of a Baalist ritual, thus it was a decree of anti-paganist intent) gets stretched into over-reaching laws that completely obscured the original intent, based upon the first commandment (Thou shalt have no other Gods…).

    Because Judaism was presented as a dry, stiff, dead entity, many sought spiritual reference elsewhere. Directing anger at those who’ve “left the path” is to blame the victim while indemnifying the perpetrators of the alienation.

    In all fairness, Morey tends not to fall into this category. When I confronted him with my discomfort about rituals such as circumcision, he didn’t respond harshly or dogmatically. He explained and conversed without being supercilious. Result: He’s circumcised both of my sons.

    Chabad is particularly clever in this regard. They welcome everyone, regardless of degree of religiousity or affiliation.

    Openness, kindness and meaningful spirituality will reach more people than harshness and dogma.

    • ravmorey Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 3:37 pm #

      Thanks, Larry. I also agree that the term “secular Jew” does not really imply without belief in God or not identified with a religion – at least not in the way that we use it here in Israel. In fact, I believe this is the first time I have seen American Jews of this sort referred to as secular Jews…I am not sure it all that accurate a description…but, as you realize, not the main point of my blog entry.

      My main point is that secular Jews did not walk away form Judaism…it became irrelevant to their modern lives…and this is where the work needs to be done.

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