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.

That "somewhat" qualifier that graces the secularism of some proportion of the 49% of American Jews is a hint of multiple meanings. According to some understandings of "secular" (which I'll be considering later on) you can no more be somewhat secular than you can be somewhat over the age of forty. (In fact, the more I ponder that "somewhat" the fuzzier the whole statistic becomes. Most of my extremely Orthodox relatives could truthfully say that they were somewhat secular. For example, they all read The New York Times religiously.)

But continuing on in the vein of extracting significance from the statistics: how have these statistics shifted over the years? How do they compare to the statistics for other ethnic groups, adjusting for socio-economic factors? How, most importantly, do they break down in terms of age groups?

All of this, and far more, must be elaborated upon if significance can be drawn from the statistics, and that elaboration, too, lies in the purview of sociology. I'm not a sociologist and I'm not going to play at being one now.

My analyses, therefore, aren't addressed to Jewish secularism, but rather secular Jewishness.

Secular Jewishness, as opposed to Jewish secularism, isn't a matter of sociology, but of something more. It's an outlook, a platform, a code of behavior. It is not a religion per se (I'll resist the urge to pause and parse the notion of religion), but it has something in common with religion, namely what philosophers call normativity, meaning that secular Jewishness makes certain claims concerning human values, the kind of life it is good to lead, the kind of life that one ought to lead. (A shorthand test for whether a proposition is normative: the presence of the word "ought," either explicitly or implicitly.)

It's a conjunctive embrace of both a secular worldview (which is, as we shall see in a moment, itself a conjunctive proposition, containing its own normative component) together with a commitment to the value of Jewishness--to be distinguished, at least in theory, from a commitment to Jewish values.

If (some) Jewish values are important, according to secular Jewishness, they are important as a means to an end, the end being the perpetuation of the Jewishness of large numbers of people who will not only continue to identify themselves as Jewish but believe that they are, in identifying themselves as Jewish, saying something of central importance about themselves.

A future-oriented projectivity, concerned with generations yet-to-be-born, is built into the normative component of secular Judaism (which is why exogamy, or inter-marriage, is always of such concern).

I'll quote from the mission statement of the Center for Cultural Judaism to demonstrate the normative element that separates the mere sociology of Jewish secularism from secular Jewishness.

"Cultural Jews have a passion for their Jewish identity, yet they struggle to express it in ways that are consistent with their beliefs. They are far from alone. In fact, a rapidly increasing number of Jews throughout the world identify themselves as cultural, non-religious Jews."

The statement then goes on to cite the same sociological statistics that I just cited, concerning the large number of unaffiliated Jews, and then it continues: "For a true renaissance in Jewish life, cultural, unaffiliated, and disaffected Jews need to be engaged with compelling programs that address their needs. The future of Judaism depends on reaching this community and enabling them to celebrate their Jewish identity and pass it on to the next generation."

This statement of position is normative. It regards the sociological facts, and then asks what ought to be done in the face of them, given the importance of "the future of Judaism." That the generations to come ought to include people who "have a passion for their Jewish identity," is the moral imperative underlying the mission.

The imperative to engage with a community of disaffected Jews (even designating this group a "community" is surreptitiously normative) and motivate them to celebrate their Jewish identity follows from the claims that Jewish group identity is a value in and of itself and as such merits perpetuation. It is not a statement concerning the group with whom one happens to want to identify and associate, given one's proclivities (fellow birders, say, or Balkan dancers), but concerning, rather, those with whom one ought to identify and associate.

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Rebecca Goldstein

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 G?del and philosopher Baruch Spinoza.