Untangling the Oxymoron of the Secular Jew

Why So Many Members of Faith Identify Themselves as Such

Model Jew: The term ‘secular’ is as closely tied to Jews as ‘crotchety’ is to Larry David. What exactly do we mean by it?
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Model Jew: The term ‘secular’ is as closely tied to Jews as ‘crotchety’ is to Larry David. What exactly do we mean by it?

By Jacques Berlinerblau

Published September 12, 2012, issue of September 14, 2012.
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‘Secular” is to “Jew” as “holy” is to “Torah,” as “noisy” is to “grogger,” as “crotchety” is to “Larry David.” Which is another way of saying that this coupling of adjective and noun sounds logical, natural and familiar. Could the same be said of a shiduch on the order of “secular Southern Baptist,” or “secular Muslim”?

Many Jews, for their part, have adopted the adjective with verve. Consider that there exists a small but vibrant religious denomination colloquially known as Secular Humanistic Judaism. Consider that the 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey discovered that a robust 44% of American Jews by birth described themselves as “secular” or “somewhat secular.”

That figure, astonishingly, was twice as high as the one tallied by Buddhists, the nation’s second most secular faith. One of the demographers who worked on that study, Ariela Keysar, recently noted that the number vaulted up to 64% when the categories were jiggered a bit. Members of the Tribe, for better or for worse, are the most secular-friendly religious group in America!

Somewhat problematically, this groundbreaking AJIS study never actually defined the term “secular.” Which leads us to wonder: What exactly do its respondents, and American Jews in general, think the s-word connotes? Having just completed a book about the rise and fall of American secularism, permit me to hazard a few guesses.

My hunch is that most Jews understand the adjective in three distinct, though sometimes overlapping, senses. The first is nonbelief and skepticism. Thus Jewish atheists and agnostics, whether they are affiliated with a denomination or not, tend to refer to themselves as secular. This is not the place to indulge in a history of Jewish atheism, though my own research leads me to believe that its initial appearance as a coherent and collective phenomenon can be traced to the post-Marxist ferment of late 19th-century Europe.

Next, many Jews may think of the word as a stand-in for religious moderation. To put it more bluntly, they conceive of secular Judaism as non-Orthodox Judaism. That ambiguous latter designation leaves an awful lot of theological terrain to inhabit. This moderate Jew could be one who does not adhere to the laws of kashrut but attends synagogue regularly; one who is intermarried and self-identifies as Jewish; one who hasn’t set foot inside a synagogue in the quarter-century since her bat mitzvah, or one who thinks of himself as a “cultural Jew,” among countless other possibilities.

This brings us to a third category, which, historically speaking anyhow, lies closest to the term’s deep roots in Christian political philosophy. Here the secular Jewish American is a person who displays a thoroughgoing skepticism about any and all entanglements between Church and State.

In so doing, she or he ratifies a precious intuition articulated by Protestant thinkers like Martin Luther, Roger Williams, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. All these diverse figures understood that any coupling of religion and government tends to be catastrophic for either or both. Jews, with their centuries of infelicitous experiences in Christian and Islamic host societies, need not be persuaded of the truth of this proposition.


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