Jewish Secularism

Is Jewish secularism possible?

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A Secular Renaissance?

This normative component emerges in all statements of secular Jewishness. It is, after all, what lifts secular Jewishness out of mere sociology.

So, for example, in a piece in Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought (Issue Four, 2007), entitled "The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Secular Judaism," Brandeis professor of Jewish-American history Jonathan Sarna extols the renaissance of secular Judaism, as manifested in such cultural artifacts as Heeb Magazine, "known as the crown jewel of publications courting Generation X and Y Jews."

And yet Sarna concludes with a note of worry: "For those who have followed the rise and fall of secular Judaism in the past, however, its contemporary rebirth is not an unmitigated blessing. I, for one, wonder: In the absence of a collective Jewish language, a shared Jewish neighborhood, and a common anti-Semitic enemy, will Jewish secularism prove viable in the long term? Can Jewish secularism, with its universalistic ethic, meet the challenge of intermarriage and keep Jews Jewish? Will secular Jews and religious Jews remain tethered to one another, each continuing to view the other as part of the totality of the Jewish people?"
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The normative note here could not be more clarion. Hipster Jewishness is a "blessing" only if it perpetuates Jewish group identification. There's even a subdued nostalgia for the good old days when "a common anti-Semitic enemy" kept Jews involuntarily aware of their Jewishness.

Where does this normative element of secular Jewishness come from? Is it simply an unexamined premise that has been carried over from the actual religion of Judaism?

Judaism is a religion which is at least as jam packed with propositional content as any other religion, meaning that it makes claims about the world, which may or may not be true, this vulnerability to the difference between truth and falsity being precisely what one means when one speaks of propositional content.

Judaism makes descriptive claims about the nature of the world, about what exists (for starters, God), and about the properties of various things that exist (for example, God's attributes, some of which are, at least in kind, shared by human beings--for example His being slow to anger and of a great loving kindness), and also claims about the relations between various things that exist (for example, God's unique relationship with the people to whom He gave the Torah).

Judaism is also at least as rich as any other religion in its normative propositions. In fact, it is in the nature of religions in general, and most certainly of Judaism, that the neat distinction that philosophers make between descriptive and normative propositions is blurred.

And so from Judaism's assertion of the unique relationship holding between the one God and the people to whom He gave the Torah a great number of normative propositions flow that have, quite trivially, this logical consequence: that there is a difference that matters between Jews and non-Jews. An unrestricted universalism, one in which the groupings of people can gain no ethical traction, is at odds with normative Judaism.

This, of course, isn't to say that Judaism sees non-Jews as lying outside the sphere of moral considerations. Nothing can be further from the truth. But normative Judaism is not peoples-blind, and the normative narrative that is central to Judaism makes the perpetuation of the Jews qua Jews of singular cosmic import.

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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.