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By Felix Posen

This article is adapted from an address given at the Hebrew University in May 2000.

The radical changes that have characterized Judaism since time immemorial is a reflection of the flexible, genius-like adaptation of our culture and religion to the changes which history either forced upon us or to which we reacted.

Has anyone ever tallied up the numerous forms of Judaism, which have existed and still exist? I have never seen such a list. Historically, our forefathers were polytheists, then veered towards monotheism with hundreds of years of overlap between poly- and monotheism. Groups such as the Sadduccees, Pharisees, Essenes, Hellenizers, and Karaites were created. Then came Rabbinic Judaism (which, in turn, split into myriad of sects), Kabbalists (who also metamorphosed over time into varying sects), and the rise of Chassidism and its numerous sects. Endless debates and fights as to who had the truer essence of our religious culture persited. Then there was the development of canons for the Tenakh, Mishna, and Talmud over a period of a few hundred years—and, of course, debates about the rankings of these canons. There have been endless fights about what should or should not be studied in the Yeshivas. And in the 200 years since the Enlightenment, there has been the formation of Judaisms such as Conservative, Reform, Reconstruction movements—each declared a heresy by the older form of Judaism. It is a veritable breathless array of developments all in the name of God and the Jewish religion. I suspect I have mentioned well less than half of the movements and sects, which have arisen in our history.

Lo and behold there also arose during the last 150-200 years—in a totally spontaneous manner, without organization or leaders, proselytizers, or literature—what is now generally referred to as “secular” or “cultural” Judaism. I wish to make it clear that I am not “selling” secular Judaism, which should be considered simply another positive option among the many forms of Judaism, and is not anti-religious. But it is growing. Secular Judaism now encompasses well more than 50% of the Jewish people, and gaining pace. Though everyone is aware of this phenomena, very little has been written about it. Even the famous American census in 1990, which did not provide for an easy to answer category of anyone not belonging to the three main streams of Judaism, came up with 1.5 million “cultural,” or non-religious Jews.

But what defines secular Jews? Let me first of all say that they are every bit as heterogenous as the religious Jews! I am sure that if one builds a matrix plotting belief against non-belief in a deity, practices of Halakha and/or rituals against only partial or non-practicing individuals, you probably will come up with innumerable models. Just imagine what a potpourri you would have if Judaism and each of its components were to display its infinite permutations of life styles, conventions, practices, half practices, non-practices, etc. Then consider where these may overlap and overlay one another. This makes definitions difficult.

Nevertheless, as a “Yekke” who feels that some sort of definition is desirable, and despite Professor Yirmiyahu Yovel’s feeling that there is no need to try and reduce secular Judaism to one coherent sentence or ideology, I have cobbled together a definition of secular Judaism. Prof. Yovel considers secularism as an historical process and phenomenon, which in reality boils down to a multiplicity of values—and some that are in conflict with one another. But my definition today is this:

Secular Jews believe that Judaism is the historic culture of the Jewish people. This culture is much broader than religion and includes everything significant that the Jewish people have created over the last 3000 years. Secular Jews participate in this culture and engage in a continuing dialogue with Jewish values, memories, books, customs, and traditions. They also engage in a significant dialogue with other cultures, as well. The exploration and enjoyment of Judaism are enhanced by freedom of thought and conscience, which require no commitment to faith and worship, and by a freedom to build and shape a Judaism that is meaningful to a Jew in the modern world.

Secular Jews view Judaism as a developing, pluralistic culture—one that is alive and changing—just like the religious streams of Judaism are constantly changing.

The secular person, whilst deeply appreciating instruction, teaching and expertise as well as guidance in morals and philosophy, does not desire to be told that this or that is the way to live, to do, or to believe. They look for social action, shared values, and a sense of belonging—but do not seek liturgy.

Yet they, too, must seek and create some associations or institutional forms of Judaism—not only to teach but above all to live this form of Judaism. To imbibe the rich and meaningful past of our culture and the ability to interpret our immensely interesting and historical heritage. All civilizations require symbolic and sentimental forms and ceremonies, if only to carry on heritage and tradition. One seeks companionship and searches for a family of relationships, which try to draw on our rich and great heritage, but often without religious content. This does not exclude symbolic traditions in our—and other cultures’—literature and art, which help sensitize one to the notions of justice, compassion, duty, conscience, and truth. The secular Jewish community must be energized to become a living force by being given a selection of outstanding texts as a paradigm of a living text, a living force. And, through interpretation and acts, transform an already very creative part of the Jewish people into an even deeper, meaningful people.

And so, one huge problem to be tackled is: What do secular Jews in the Diaspora do for community identity? The post modern characteristic of lack of communities is bedeviling. Those who have the imagination, learning, and inner drive hopefully will assume the power of shaping and synthesizing ceremonies to their own specification. I suggest this may eventually be a secular route to transmit a culture, tradition, and the formation of like-minded communities, who then will practice their Judaism with full intellectual honesty.
Felix Posen is the founder of the Posen Foundation, which examines what Judaism means as a culture. To access the full-length address given at Hebrew University, .

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