Judaism in a Secular Age Foreword


Judaism in a Secular Age Foreword

This anthology is an important innovation. For the first time readings from the basic literature of Secular Humanistic Judaism have been assembled in one book.

Secular Humanistic Judaism has existed as an alternative in Jewish life for over one hundred years. For most of its history it was an informal option in Jewish life. There was no awareness of a single movement. Secular Jews participated in a wide variety of Jewish movements – Zionism, Yiddish nationalism, and Bundism. They created Jewish schools, reading circles, and cultural associations. They joined fraternal societies, community centers, and welfare agencies. They supported Jewish community life and fought against antisemitism. Some lived in tight-knit Jewish communities like the farm kibbutzim in Israel. Others lived unaffiliated lives in big urban centers, expressing their Jewish identity through family and social relationships, through reading Jewish newspapers and attending Jewish cultural events. All were uncomfortable with the institutions of the well-organized Jewish religious world, whether those institutions were Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist.

In recent years secular and humanistic Jews have coalesced into an international movement, with self-identified communities, national organizations, publications, publicly proclaimed statements of belief, and schools for training leaders of the movement. The name Secular Humanistic Judaism reflects two principal ideological strains. It could just as easily have been called Cultural Judaism or Naturalistic Judaism or Rational Judaism.

Secular Humanistic Judaism is a reflection of the enormous changes that have occurred in Jewish life over the past three centuries. From the perspective of the age of science and of modern Jewish life as actually lived by millions of contemporary Jews, it is quite conventional. From the perspective of traditional religion – and even the official ideology of liberal religion – it is a radical departure from established norms. There are four major differences from ”official” Judaism.

1. Secular Jews do not view Judaism as primarily a religion. They see it as the evolving culture and civilization of a world people. This culture embraces many variations – Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Oriental, and Israeli. It includes many options – language, literature, music, holidays, and religion. It features many ethical styles – authoritarian, intuitive, and consequential. It provides many political and economic choices- theocracy; democracy, capitalism, and socialism. It allows many interpretations of the Jewish experience – theistic, pantheistic, and atheistic. Being Jewish may include any one of these options. What unites all positive Jews is an active identification with the history and fate of the Jewish people.

2. Secular Jews do not accept the authority of a supernatural God. Nor do they seek to ”rescue” religious and theistic language for naturalistic purposes. Secular Jews do not believe that traditional religious expressions fit secular interpretations of Jewish history and the human experience. They want to say boldly and clearly what it is that they believe. They want their words to point easily to what they think and feel. A Judaism without ”God language” is a radical departure from even the most liberal of existing Jewish religious options, including the Reform and Reconstructionist movements. It poses the challenge of framing Jewish aspirations in a secular language.

3. Secular Jews do not feel any need to be validated by traditional religious texts. They do not seek the ”approval” of either the Torah, the Talmud, the Siddur, or the response literature of the rabbis. They find their authority in the evidence of Jewish and human experience. Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaism choose to justify their norms by appealing to sacred texts. In this respect, they resemble Orthodoxy. Secular Jews view these texts simply as famous Jewish literary works. They recognize that many important humanistic ideas and values appear in them, but do not attribute authority to these ideas and values solely because of their presence in the texts. These ideas and values would be equally significant even if the texts did not exist, and even if their earliest expression occurred in other Jewish texts.

4. Secular Jews deny that there is only one Jewish tradition. They do not accept the establishment rabbinic tradition as the only example of “Jewish roots.” They recognize that there have always been counter-establishment traditions whether mystical or secular. These traditions are often known to us through denunciations in the “official” rabbinic literature or through popular cultural creations. Ashkenazic Jewish religion is pious. Ashkenazic Jewish humor is skeptical. There are ”underground” and ”folk” traditions which are just as rooted as the official ideology. Conformity and censorship prevented most of these traditions from ever being ”published.” Only the freedom of modem democratic societies has allowed Jews the opportunity to give open expression to them.

The implications of these four distances are very clear. The basic literature of Secular Humanistic Judaism overlaps the literature of religious Judaism. But it is essentially different and overwhelmingly modem. Most Jewish literature written before the Enlightenment is not suitable as inspirational and instructional reading for secular and humanistic Jews. It is historically interesting-and sometimes ethically elevating-but it does not easily fit into the secular perspective on the meaning of the Jewish experience and the human condition.

There is a large body of Jewish literature, written during and after the Enlightenment, that very explicitly articulates the feelings and thoughts of secular Jews. Much of it was written by famous people who were not comfortable with the ideas and institutions of the religious establishment. Most of it is unknown to the general Jewish public – even to most Jews who identify with or are sympathetic to a secular perspective.

The purpose of this anthology is to assemble the best of be alternative literature and make it available to the Jewish public. This outreach includes the possibility of serving three sets of needs.

  1. This anthology can be a basic reader for Secular Humanistic Jews who are seeking the inspirational and ideological roots of their commitment. Secular Jews do not need an alternative Torah. But they do need access to the writings of their teachers and heroes.

  2. It can also be a journey of Jewish exploration for Jews who are searching for an effective way to express their Jewish identity but who are not comfortable with the religious alternatives that are presently available.

  3. It can certainly be an interesting opportunity for students of modem Judaism, even those who are religious, to understand an important development in modem Jewish life.

I hope that this unique reader will make an important difference in Jewish life by increasing the awareness of Secular Humanistic Judaism in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

Sherwin Wine