Sorry Friends, Secularism Cannot Be Considered Judaism

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Jews celebrating the holiday of Sukkot.
Jews celebrating the holiday of Sukkot. Credit: Emil Salman

It seems to me we allow ourselves to take extreme positions regarding our Jewish identity because there are “others” who will fill in what we lack. In all sincerity: Can Jewish identity, alive and binding, something that passes from generation to generation, exist without the world of Torah and the commandments?

Why is it so attractive to latch onto philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s categorical thinking when it comes to the territories, peace and the “occupation,” and ignore his no less categorical declaration that the world of Torah and the commandments is the root of Judaism’s fundamental and historical existence?

Jews who keep the commandments are supposed to pray morning, afternoon and evening every day. They also take upon themselves the divine obligation to say the Shema and to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. They are supposed to honor their parents and spouse and pay their workers on time and fairly, to study and teach, and to properly treat the weak and the needy.

Such people are very restricted in their actions and achievements, as we all are, and certainly make mistakes every day regarding others and themselves. But their task is to stand before the Creator to the best of their meager human ability. I know no phenomenon more “Jewish” than this, and I don’t know a clearer way to pass on Jewish identity and heritage from generation to generation.

There are different shades of Judaism, and important Hebrew texts have been neglected by halakhic Judaism (and yes, also by part of secular Judaism), as Prof. Dan Miron pointed out well in his September 20 piece in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition.

But from this well-founded place, people sometimes go too far and mislead to the point where some say: It’s true, there is halakha, Jewish law, and keeping the commandments, but don’t exaggerate their importance. Maintaining the “true” Judaism is now in the hands of secular Judaism, as Rami Livni claimed in that September 20 edition.

This extreme pronouncement tries to impose a foreign identity on Judaism. How great the distance is between the justified demand to explore more obscure texts and sources of Jewish literature and culture, and the claim that halakhic Judaism isn’t an essential factor in Jewish continuity in these times as well.

The Hebrew text, with all its depth, accompanies traditional Jews at all times. The dialogue with all the generations of Jewish history is conducted most authentically by following the commandments and studying Torah, in the broad and correct way as I see it.

Is it proper, for example, to say that a person who studies the Apocrypha more, but hardly knows Rashi’s interpretation of the Torah and the Gemara, and Maimonides’ halakhic works, is a faithful follower of Judaism?

This applies not only to the secular argument that radicalizes its positions. Even among the religious community, some people can allow themselves to express extreme, even vitriolic, positions on the assumption, conscious or not, that other people will fill in what’s lacking in the areas of morality, culture and democracy.

Here is also where my great surprise emerges. I believe that full halakhic Judaism includes proper conduct, respect for all creatures and an inclination toward peace and compromise.

Precisely because of this, I would like to say to those who condition the perpetuation of Judaism on the absolute victory of secularity: Friends, this simply cannot exist and still be considered Judaism. You can’t move the sea from one place to another and expect it to remain the same sea. It might be a fascinating human experiment, but it won’t be Judaism.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: