Jewish Secularism

Is Jewish secularism possible?

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Is Secular Judaism Coherent?

Can an attitude of this sort be reconciled with normative secularism, or is secular Judaism helping itself to a norm it isn't entitled to, one that can only be justified by an appeal to the transcendent narrative of traditional Judaism, a narrative that employs such phrases as "a light unto the nations" in its descriptions of the Jews? In other words, is secular Judaism, which seeks to cobble together two different normative aspects, philosophically incoherent?

The issue turns on universalism. Normative secularism yields an unrestricted universalism which secular Judaism seems to be testing. I'm not asking whether secular Judaism is really Jewish. I'm asking whether it's really secular.
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There's a certain typical move that the philosopher David Hume executes numerous times in his writings. After showing that some fundamental position can't be coherently justified on philosophical grounds, he'll offer a psychological explanation for why we nevertheless have a strong--even irresistible--inclination to believe it.

I can imagine a Humean response to the questions I've been lobbing at secular Judaism: admit its philosophical incoherence and then go on to offer an explanation as why it yet feels so psychologically compelling to some of us.
Researchers in the psychology of morality tell us that our moral intuitions, which we quite often have trouble justifying, draw on at least four different deep-rooted emotions (all of which had an evolutionary role to play): our sense of reciprocity and fairness, our sense of disgust, our sense of loyalty, and our sense of respect for authority.

It wouldn't be all that difficult to construct an explanation as to why, given the unique history of the Jews, its shared tragedies and triumphs, many Jews feel a sense of loyalty so urgent as to present itself as a genuine moral imperative to be projected beyond oneself, even if that imperative clashes with their wider secular point of view.

An Outline for Secular Judaism

But perhaps to offer such a Humean response is to give up the game too soon. Perhaps more can be said to render secular Judaism coherent in the universalist terms that are appropriate to normative secularism. Here's the broad outline of such an attempt:

Human diversity promotes human flourishing. It's a diminishment for all when a people, a language, a culture goes out of existence. This holds for all peoples, all languages, all cultures. Secularists are not betraying their universalism when they mourn the passing out of existence of a distinctive culture.

But one can even go a bit further in discussing the case of the Jews. Trying to be perfectly disinterested here, as a good secularist must be, and not engage in any special pleading that is coming from those unexamined emotions that throw off moral intuitions one cannot defend, one must observe that this particular people has produced a culture of surmounting interest, compensating for statelessness, and its attendant indignities and horrors, by producing a portable civilization of confounding ethical and intellectual dimensions, and demonstrating by their ability to endure and to adapt, something surprising and (dare one say?) redemptive about human nature.

A defense of secular Judaism in terms such as this commits the movement not just to the perpetuation of self-identifying Jews, but to the perpetuation of that portable civilization of confounding ethical and intellectual dimensions, for the sense of that enormously complicated and continuous civilization to infiltrate the sense of one's life, so that one somehow lives that life differently in the presence of that sense.

In other words, though Jewish civilization might, in some regards, be compared, for a secularist, to a singular work of art, whose preservation adds to human flourishing as a whole, its preservation can't be relegated to a form of mounting it in a museum and gazing at it in appreciation. Rather, it is only perpetuation in the form of lived experience that counts.

There's a certain irony here. A secularist normativity is uncompromisingly universal. The notion of a specifically Jewish ethics can gain no foothold for a normative secularist. And yet if secular Judaism is to rise beyond an unexamined emotional basis, if it is to be anything more than clannishness promoted to empty moral imperatives, then it must motivate its adherents to live with an informed sense of their continuity with a specific history into which they were born.

Human flourishing can be promoted by Jewish self-identification only if Jewish experience continues to be distinctively Jewish, which means that secular Judaism is committed, somewhat paradoxically, to Jews living and feeling differently because they are Jews.

And that's a lot of commitment to ask, especially if one doesn't have the religious motivation for undertaking it. But if secular Judaism is to be true to its secularism, then, strange to say, it has to be true to Judaism.

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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.