Are Secular Jews Really Self-Deluded?

Social Justice Does Not Need God

Propelled by God: Are secular Jews, like the social justice activists in Israel, motivated by religion?
Getty Images
Propelled by God: Are secular Jews, like the social justice activists in Israel, motivated by religion?

By Leonard Fein

Published February 09, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Not quite suddenly — it’s been unfolding intermittently for a while, and has venerable roots in earlier generations — the debate over what is meant by “secular Judaism” has been heating up. In God-centered understandings of Judaism (or “Jewishness,” if you prefer), the commitment of large numbers of Jews to social justice derives directly from classical religious sources. But secularists claim that by now, the pursuit of justice has become so central a theme of Jewish life that it stands comfortably on its own and doesn’t require textual references to justify or sustain it.

It seems to me essential that the adherents of what we call “secular Judaism” not be stereotyped or misunderstood. True, it is the case that among those who define themselves as secular Jews, some indeterminate number are militantly anti-religious — or, more precisely, anti-God. But my own experience in secular circles strongly suggests that most secularists are basically indifferent to the God question.

That does not render them indifferent to the religious question. At best, they share the view that religion comes not to answer questions that otherwise have no answer, but to insist on questions that might otherwise be forgotten. Among these, the most persistent question is the very first question in the Jewish narrative: Where are you?

The classical response to that question is the one Hebrew word — hineini — that takes three English words to be translated: Here I am.

Secular Jews richly understand the hineini imperative, and see themselves as living according to that imperative. In so doing, they often encounter two related critiques: First, that this imperative simply does not work when detached from Jewish theology, and, second, purely secular responses wither and die unless they are rooted in religious discourse.

A pertinent example comes from the pen of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, who is widely and appropriately respected for his thoughtful observations on Jewish life. Writing in mid-January on The Huffington Post website (which chose to entitle his article “The Self-Delusions of Secular Jews”), Yoffie argued that the struggle he observed among secular Jews when it comes to “big religious questions… makes no sense.”

Why is that? Because “the Jewish people cannot be separated from God. The Jews came into being as a people at Sinai, waiting in readiness for the revelation of Torah; they are not now, and have never been, simply another ethnic grouping. For Jews, Jewish ethnicity does not stand apart from faith and community does not stand apart from Jewish law. Absent their religious essence, the Jewish people withers and dies.”

My friend Steven M. Cohen and I have written a rebuttal to Yoffie, available on The Huffington Post, and I don’t intend here to recapitulate what we said there. Here, the question is only about the viability of secularism. For Yoffie, “values such as social justice, hospitality and menschlichkeit (decency)… are grounded in the sacred texts of Jewish religious tradition and have endured solely because of the authority that the religious tradition imposes.” The very essential center of this tradition, for Yoffie, is the Jewish people’s covenant with God.

Now, ask the Jews most engaged in the work of justice whether they feel they are parties to a covenant with God, and very many — in my view, the overwhelming majority — will look at you incredulously. (An exception: It is worth noting, and praising, the vigorous work of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox outlier that is the most visible Orthodox endeavor in the arena of social justice.) In the view of that majority, secular Judaism is, in fact, a religious undertaking, often infused with explicitly religious language, frequently drawing on the writing of the Prophets. God? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. God is, for the most part, simply not what this is about.

For Yoffie, the roots — God — are essential ingredients in the struggle for social justice. And it is true that without roots, branches cannot long survive. But visualize in place of rootless branches mighty oaks that drop acorns that sprout, usually a good distance (20 to 30 meters) from the mother oak. The new trees to which they give birth do not look to the mother tree for guidance; they have their own work, the work of growing, to attend to.

And yes, in the scheme of things — both ecological and mystical — that is sacred work.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.