Jewish Secularism

Is Jewish secularism possible?

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The following working paper was written for the Bronfman Vision Forum’s Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in an Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

My training is in analytic philosophy and when you have such training as I do you develop certain intellectual tics that have, as their basis, a phobia of saying anything vague, ambiguous, or (some might say) interesting. I’ve struggled hard to overcome my philosophical training, and I try to say at least one imprecise thing a day.menorah

Sometimes I even force myself to say something interesting. But I have to confess that when I’m assigned a topic like the one before me, contemporary Jewish secularism, I experience an acute outbreak of obscuriphobia (fear of obscurity) and have to restrain myself from collapsing into a neurotic bout of manically drawing one conceptual distinction after the next. But frankly I can’t proceed further without making a few preliminary distinctions.

Jewish Secularism vs. Secular Jewishness

So let’s distinguish, first of all, between Jewish secularism and what I’m going to call “secular Jewishness”, although it’s usually referred to, more sonorously if also more paradoxically, as “secular Judaism” (or sometimes “cultural Judaism”).

Jewish secularism is a matter of sociology, of garnering and expounding upon such statistics as the following: Research shows (according to Wikipedia’s entry on “Jewish Secularism”) that more than half of all Jews worldwide define themselves as secular. The American Jewish Identification Survey, published by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2001, reported that 49% of American Jews describe themselves as secular or somewhat secular. One-half of American Jews are completely unaffiliated, belonging to no Jewish organization.

Granted, these statistics in themselves say little without further elaboration. How, for example, is “secular” being used by half of worldwide Jews when they describe themselves as such? Univocally? I doubt it.

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Rebecca Goldstein is a novelist and professor of philosophy. She has written five novels, a number of short stories and essays, and biographical studies of mathematician Kurt Gödel and philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

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