Secular Judaism is an Oxymoron

Judaism is a religion.

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“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?

sigmund freudThere 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).

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David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies and is Professor of the Study of Religion and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.

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