Jewish Secularism’s Moment


Nearly 50 years ago, Time magazine, in a report about Jewish opposition to “religious practices” in public schools, described a rise in Jewish secularism that disturbed some leaders of the American Jewish community.

Jewish support for a secular agenda added “fuel to the flames of anti-Semitism,” Time quoted Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue as warning. “The danger” to American Jewry, said Michael Wyschogrod, assistant professor of philosophy at Hunter College, is not the threat of conversion to Christianity, but “secularism, the disappearance of the word ‘God’ from the minds and tongues of millions of Jews.”

In 2011, the emerging strength of Jewish secularism (or secular Jews, not necessarily the same) that Time wrote about has grown into a presence that represents about four in 10 of the country’s self-identified Jews, according to studies, and which is subject to less criticism from Jewish and outside circles.

Today, secular Jews don’t feel compelled to defend their beliefs — or non-beliefs.“There are hundreds of millions of people who are non-religious,” and Jews are a disproportionate part of this group, said Phil Zuckerman, a “culturally Jewish” sociologist of religion at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., and director of the small liberal arts institution’s newly announced department of secular studies.

The department, the first at an American university, will offer such courses as “Bible as Literature” and “God, Darwin and Design in America,” and it is one recent sign of the increasing visibility and influence of secular Jews and secular Judaism.

Other examples:

A two-day seminar earlier this week on “The Origins and Development of Jewish Secularism,” sponsored by the Posen Foundation, a leading sponsor of secular Jewish programs, for secondary school teachers. At the Museum of Jewish Heritage–A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Battery Park City, educators from nine states attended sessions on such topics as “The Jewish Transition to Modernity” and “The Rise of Jewish Secularity in the West.”

A study being conducted by the Los Angeles-based Institute for Jewish Spirituality on how many non-believing Jews are in the United States and how the Jewish community can accommodate them. The results, said Diana Schuster, a lecturer at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles branch, will be used by the institute to develop retreats for “Jewish doubters” and for “clergy who work with the doubter population.”

The Jewish Outreach Institute will feature a session at its national conference later this month on how to engage Judaism without God.

The recognition for “Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought,” the 2010 manifesto of Jewish secularism written by David Biale, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis. His book won several national book awards.

Centuries after philosopher Baruch Spinoza earned excommunication for his then-radical non-theistic views and the Enlightenment challenged many traditional Jewish beliefs, a century after the Zionist and Yiddishist movements attracted large numbers of Jews in this country and Europe, it is not surprising that the term “secular Jew” has ceased to be an oxymoron, or an object of opprobrium, leaders of the secular Jewish movement say.

“The word ‘secular’ is no longer necessarily a ‘fighting word,’” Biale told The Jewish Week. “The ideological battles of the past are not that alive today.

“I don’t think that Jewish secularism per se is on the rise as an ideological movement, but the number of secular Jews is certainly on the rise. There is, therefore, a growing interest in what it might mean to be a secular Jew in all its possible manifestations.”

He defines Jewish secularism as “the rejection of traditional Jewish belief and practice and the construction of alternative beliefs and practices that are still grounded in categories from the Jewish tradition.”

“Secular Jews are not the same as Jewish secularists,” he said. “The former construct their secular identities without any reference to the Jewish tradition. The latter … engage the Jewish religious tradition, if only to replace it by secular content.”

Despite anecdotal claims of growing religiosity among American Jews, Christians and Muslims, many studies indicate that more Americans than ever have shed belief in God, Biale said. “The most recent religious identification survey of the whole U.S. population showed 15 percent claiming no religion, up from about 7 percent a decade earlier … Jews are probably more secular than the general population.

“During the 1950s and 1960s, religious identification became more prevalent,” he said, “but with the rise of multiculturalism and identification with Israel, more Jews were prepared to call themselves secular Jews, meaning that they found other ways to be Jewish besides the religious way.”

Unlike Christians, who often switch denominations when they feel uncomfortable with the beliefs or practice of a particular branch of their religion, Jews often “give up” their religious affiliation altogether, said Barry Kosmin, director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism, Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. According to the institute’s most recent religious identification survey, released in 2008, the “no religion” percentage of the American Jewish population has almost doubled since 1990 from 20 to 37 percent. A young, highly educated Jewish male who lives on the West Coast is the typical secular Jew, Kosmin said.

And a recent survey by the Pew Forum found that American Jews were more likely than members of other religious groups to declare that religion is not important to them, that they do not consider the Bible written by God, and that they do not believe in God.

“We’re more secular than Americans in general,” with roots in the waves of immigrants from Europe who came here more than a century ago, partly as a “move against rabbinic [authority],” Kosmin said.

The contemporary brand of Jewish secularism is “if not a militant atheism” — it’s not against anything, rather is an assertion of a humanistic Jewish identity, he said.

“Secular Jews are all over the place with their personal beliefs,” Rabbi Peter Schweitzer of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism said in a 2007 lecture on “Varieties of Jewish Secularism.” The congregation, which has 125 households as members, meets at the 14th Street Y.

“Our array of secular varieties … are as popular as they come,” Rabbi Schweitzer said in the lecture. There are secular Jews, the rabbi told The Jewish Week, who favor social justice or modified rituals as their primary Jewish form of identification. “We have ‘High Holy Days’ Jews, too.”

Rabbi Schweitzer also talks about “post-secular” Jews, who may find the term “secular” as limiting as any of the standard denominational labels. “There are people for whom certain terms aren’t useful.

“Perhaps,” the rabbi said, “that is what some call a cultural Jew.”

“I think what makes them tick” — whether cultural Jew or atheist, secular Jew or Jewish secularist — “is a sense of history, culture and community, allied to a belief among many that Jews have made unique contributions to the world,” said Rabbi David Wolpe, spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles who has conducted public debates with several prominent atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris (both of whom have Jewish mothers, but were not raised to identify as Jews).

Rabbi Wolpe likens non-believers who often continue to maintain a strong Jewish identity to “cut flowers.”

“Without the soil of religion,” he says, “I don’t know how long a genuine commitment to Judaism can sustain itself. Everything else can be done in another context — you can be good, charitable, communal, etc. — without being Jewish. The only thing about Judaism that is uniquely Jewish is Judaism itself.”

Outreach to secular Jews may help strengthen the Jewish community, by recognizing their connection to Jewish peoplehood, says Rabbi Rachel Cowan, executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. “There’s an un-vocalized tension at the core of synagogue services,” she said. “The rabbi speaks about God and nobody really knows what that means.”

“I think that a lot of people stop praying with a congregation because they can’t make the words mean anything in their lives,” said Cantor Ellen Dreskin of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, in Chappaqua. “People say, ‘I don’t believe God makes the sun set every night,’ and they stop going to services. No one has told them that they’re allowed to grow and develop in their spiritual selves.”

For some, spirituality is tied more to reason than to a notion of God.

“There is a recognition that some people find spiritual sustenance and nurturing through the intellect that is not necessarily tied to anything related to the Divine,” Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the New York-based Jewish Outreach Institute, said of the upcoming conference session on “Judaism Without God.”

Jessica Evans, program officer of the Center for Cultural Judaism, which administers Posen Foundation projects in New York, calls this week’s teachers’ seminar here “a sign of growing interest in secular Judaism.” While the foundation already underwrites courses on Jewish secularism at several American universities, “a growing number” of teachers in middle schools and high schools are also interested in teaching the subject, she said.

“Cultural Judaism is absolutely thriving in New York City,” Evans says. “Three local colleges — Hunter College, Queens College, and The New School — each offer coursework in Jewish secularism. The New School even offers a dedicated program in Jewish cultural studies.

“Secular Judaism and the formation of secular Jewish congregations offers an important option for a vast number of Jews who are disaffected and alienated by the traditional theistic model,” said Rabbi Schweitzer of The City Congregation. “We believe that Judaism remains vital because it has changed and evolved and that we are part of that continuum of continuity and innovation.”

At Pitzer College, part of California’s network of Claremont Colleges, the new secular studies department is a natural draw for the largely secular Jewish students who make up about 15 percent of the school’s 1,000-student undergraduate student body, said Rabbi Daveen Litwin, Pitzer’s chaplain and Hillel director.

A secular studies department is a natural home for students with a secular bent, said Phil Zuckerman, the department’s director. At most universities, he says, courses about secular subjects are taught in religious studies departments. At Pitzer College, he said, courses about secular subjects will be outside of a religious influence. “It’s exactly where we want to be.”

JTA contributed to this article.