There is a whole lot of silliness going around about the Pew Survey, but the silliest idea of all is this: Since more and more Jews (22 percent in total) say that they have no religion, the key to Jewish survival is to devise a Judaism that dispenses with religion. In this way of thinking, “Jewish secularism,” now taking on new forms, will draw disaffected young Jews into the Jewish community and save them for the Jewish people.
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Examples of this line of argument abound. In a Los Angeles Times article by Emily Alpert on September 30, we learn that Jewish secularism is “booming” and that Los Angeles groups that promote Jewish culture and secular humanistic Judaism are thriving. “We like to think that we’re sort of saving Judaism,” a member of one of the communities asserts. Writing in Haaretz, Michael Felsen tells the story of the Center for Jewish Culture and Social Justice in Boston. Sponsored by the Workmen’s Circle, the Center provides a home for Jews who want to celebrate Jewish culture and values, and Felsen is similarly optimistic about the role that such groups can play in reaching the growing “Jews-of-no-religion” demographic.
The problem with this approach to American Jewish life is that what it is proposing is preposterous.
I have no dispute with anyone who decides to join a secular Jewish group. He or she has every right to do so, and I applaud any positive act of Jewish identification; and heaven knows that this is the time for an open and creative approach to Jewish life. If some kind of cultural Judaism is what works for you, fine.
But in the wake of the Pew results, the issue for the Jewish community is what our priorities should be and how we can best channel our resources. And the fact is that it makes no sense whatever to encourage the development of aggressively secular Jewish institutions and programs. The Jewish people has several centuries of experience with secular Jewish movements of various sorts. (In the premodern period, of course, Jewish secularism did not exist.) And what they all share is an inability to sustain themselves over time; absent a religious anchor, they wither and die.
Jewish socialism is no more. Yiddishism has disappeared. Jewish humanism exists on the margins. And secular Zionism has failed as well — not in the matter of creating a Jewish state, but in the task of offering a meaningful Jewish existence to its Jewish citizens. (The massive discomfort and confusion about religion in the Jewish state flows both from the absurdity of a government-sponsored religious monopoly and from the failure of secular Zionism to offer a blueprint for what Jewishness might mean in the modern State of Israel.)
What complicates the picture is that Judaism is a “people-religion.” Judaism’s foundational religious event is the revelation at Sinai, and while there are a variety of ways in which that event might be understood, the message of Sinai is that Judaism is more than individual religious belief; it is also the faith of a people with its own distinctive culture and history. To be Jewish, therefore, is to embrace the Jewish religion, but also to be part of the Jewish people — which means to identify with the communal, ethnic, cultural and national components of Jewish life. In recent times there have always been those who emphasized the peoplehood dimensions of Judaism while minimizing the religious dimensions, and those who did the opposite. But we know from our experience in the modern era that the religious and peoplehood strands of Judaism are inextricably intertwined; neither one, in isolation, is sufficient to maintain some reasonable level of Jewish existence. When a Jewish community selects one while rejecting the other, it inflicts grievous wounds on itself.
Secular expressions of Judaism are not new, and it hardly a surprise to find Jews who make secular or cultural Jewish choices. And some who start down a secular path may end up by grasping the centrality of Judaism’s textual and religious heritage. Still, reasonable distinctions need to be made. The Jewish community must be wise enough to know that those who vociferously exclude the religious dimension of Judaism are offering a recipe for disaster. If our current institutions, including the synagogue, are not doing a good job of conveying Judaism’s religious message — and apparently they are not — then they must do better. But a one-dimensional, godless Judaism has never been the answer, and it will not be the answer now.
And let’s remember that the great majority of American Jews still understand that. Fully 78 percent of Jews see themselves as Jewish by religion. They may enjoy ethnic delicacies, immerse themselves in Jewish culture and identify with Jewish nationalism. But an ideology of Jewish secularism in its various manifestations is not what they want or need, no matter what their personal theologies or levels of religious observance. They know now, as they have always known, that absent Torah, mitzvoth, ritual and sacred texts, there is no Judaism — and no Jewish future.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a writer, lecturer and teacher, served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012 and lives in the United States.