Secular Judaism is an Oxymoron

Judaism is a religion.

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In conclusion, let me state that I in no way want to read out of the Jewish people or have anyone shun secular Jews. In the case of Jews who have converted to another religion (meshumadim), normative Judaism always keeps the door open for them to return to the fold. All the more so, then, secularist Jews (whose secularism is ideologically principled and not just casual), who have not rejected Jewish religion for anything else (with the possible exception of those Jews for whom their non-Jewish ideology has become a substitute religion in fact), should not be forgotten or shunned.

And this should be done even more so with the many Jews who only call themselves "secular" because, for them, this means they are not "Orthodox," even though many of them will often attend synagogues and practice Jewish rituals there and at home, consciously as religious acts, however haphazardly. In Israel today, such Jews are usually called "traditional" (mesorti) to distinguish them from doctrinaire secularists (chilonim).

The Talmud (Nazir 23b) teaches that traditional Jewish practice done for the wrong reason (or an inchoate reason) is to be encouraged nonetheless, since it might very well lead to practice done for the right reason in the long run. Along these lines, I myself do everything possible to befriend such secular and secularist Jews (the latter, who might be what rabbinic tradition called mumarim or "heretics"), not as a form of proselytism (which could imply that Judaism is essentially a matter of choice rather than one of divine election) but, rather, to show them that my being Jewish as their being Jewish is because God elected my and their Jewish ancestors, and thus me and them too along with them. (In fact, I even show similar concern for Jews who have become apostates by their conversion to another religion.) This makes our Jewish differences matters of degree, not of kind.

So, what I try to show them, by example rather than by precept, is that Jewish identity is most precious, and that it is best lived in the coherent and sustainable way that Judaism has structured through halakhah and informed by theology (aggadah broadly conceived). It is to be hoped that this will show that this life is ultimately (if not yet immediately) lived for the sake of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.

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David Novak

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.