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Can Secularism Save Jewish Religion?

Lawrence Bush
May 1, 2005

by Rabbi Richard Hirsh
Following the tsunami tragedy in Southeast Asia, two contradictory reflections appeared in the New York Times on the same day, January 4th. In the letters section, a Christian clergyman wrote: “The tsunami caused many of us to ask some basic questions about life . . . Believers are convinced that the author of life has a reason for giving life and for taking it. Could [the tsunami] be [comprehended from the perspective] of eternal life, the real life?” In the science section, a group of scientists was asked, “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” A Stanford University neuroscientist replied, “that there is no god . . . in my world of biologists, the god concept gets mighty infuriating when you spend your time thinking about, say, untreatably aggressive childhood leukemia.”
Many Jews, and certainly most Christians, would probably expect a rabbi to align himself with the position of the clergyman, not with that of the neuroscientist. So what does it mean to be a rabbi who finds himself in agreement with the neuroscientist and appalled by the smug and insensitive banality of the clergyman?
A “secular rabbi” like me lives between two Jewish worlds. There is the religious world, in which a series of beliefs regarding God, Torah, and the people Israel are usually assumed (if not always well thought through). Then there is the secular world, in which those same beliefs are usually rejected, ignored, or condemned.
A secular Jew, as well as a religious one, might well ask why one would choose to participate in Jewish religious life, absent a belief in God, in the revealed nature of the Torah and the halakha (Jewish law), and in the supernatural status of Jews as the “chosen people.” But if one examines and interprets the religious traditions of the Jewish people from a secular perspective — “secular” meant in its original sense of “worldly,” of this world in contrast to some presumed “other” world — the words, rituals, rhythms, texts and teachings of religious Judaism can speak in a meaningful way to a secular Jew.

Full disclosure: I am a Reconstructionist rabbi, trained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Reconstructionist Judaism, based on the teachings of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in the first half of the 20th century, shares with Jewish secularism many assumptions (and denials) about the origins of Judaism. It is, in many ways, a secular form of religious Jewish affirmation. Kaplan’s essential insight was that Judaism is not a religion, but rather a civilizational culture — a perspective secular Jews would readily embrace. Yet while secular Jews might have difficulty embracing or even tolerating religious practice within that civilization, Kaplan believed one could reconstruct Jewish religion and keep a central place for it in Jewish life — on contemporary terms.
Kaplan’s “heresy” was in seeing Jewish culture, including Jewish religion, as growing from the ground up, rather than as revealed from the (mountain-) top down. While traditional Jewish religion posits that there is a supernatural “God” who “gave the Torah” and “chose the Jews,” Reconstructionist Judaism posits that whatever we have inherited as Jewish religion is the product of the natural experience of the Jewish people throughout history. “God,” “revelation,” and “chosen-ness,” to pick just a few traditional categories, are cultural constructs of the Jewish people, not objective realities to be found “out there.”
From this perspective, the Jews are a natural, not a supernatural, people. Like all peoples, Jews have created a culture that includes literature and language, symbols and rituals, holidays and calendars, and ideals, values, and beliefs. In contrast to other cultures and religions, ours is neither necessarily better or worse, true or false; it is simply “different,” in the way one language is different from another while sharing with all languages a common function of communication.
Kaplan challenged the Jews of the first half of the 20th century to reengage with Jewish religious tradition — not despite its human origin but because of it. For Kaplan, religion is worth a second look not because of what it tells us about God but because of what it tells us about people. Appreciating the literature, vocabulary, narratives, and insights of our ancestors does not mean accepting or endorsing them; it means being open to the poetry and philosophy our ancestors created, all of which can be rediscovered beneath the surface of supernaturalism in which pre-modern Jews cloaked their conversations. Within human cultures, religions have been where central, pervasive, and powerful issues of foundational and/or ultimate meaning are raised, discussed, analyzed, adapted, applied, and transmitted. Surely secular Jews, no less than religious ones, are challenged to engage such fundamental concerns.

I suspect that underlying much of the secular rejection of Jewish religion is a rejection of belief in God — or, more precisely, belief in a certain conception of God held by many religious believers: that of a supernatural “being” with consciousness who is able to intervene in our world (to respond, for example, to prayers for healing the sick), who serves as the ultimate source of moral authority (as in the Hebrew liturgical phrase, “who commanded us to . . .”), and who is the creator, guide, and redeemer of history (as in that New York Times letter, which dismisses the death of over 225,000 people as somehow a manifestation of “God’s will”). This God is also associated with modern Jewish “spirituality,” which is being so aggressively advocated and marketed today. Spirituality is often described as “experiencing God,” “communing with the Divine,” or “exploring one’s relationship with God” — as if it were a given that there is a supernatural God, or a Divine presence, or some transcendent force or power “out there.” Popular Jewish spirituality seems content to proceed as if there were no problems with the very idea of God — as if affirming God could somehow be detached from larger issues, not the least of which is the naggingly difficult problem of evil.
Still, to avoid the word “God” entirely is to avoid the meanings our ancestors poured into it — some with which we might agree and many from which we would dissent. Therefore, while a secular Jew might typically ask, ‘If I have no belief in God, at least in any of the traditional senses of that term, why should I bother retaining a problematic and misleading word?” — I would argue that we needlessly deprive ourselves of a rich and complex category of discourse if we excise God from our conversation. “God” is a prism through which Jewish struggles about ultimate issues are refracted. To me, the really interesting questions about God are: Why and how have Jews used that word? What kind of imagery and associations have they attached to it? At what times in earlier Jewish history and under what circumstances did certain ideas of God advance and others recede? As the late scholar Paul van Buren argued in his important book, The Edges of Language, when we use the word “God,” we are talking about the things that really matter — from our subjective, human viewpoint. No other word has the same power to animate such conversations.
As an example: the liturgy of the High Holy Days appeals to “Avinu, Malkeynu,” “Our Father, Our King.” If we take the imagery literally, we immediately run into problems. Read through a secular lens, however, these poetic metaphors can evoke encounters with central questions of life: Are we accountable to anyone, where can we find comfort and acceptance, how do we earn forgiveness, where do we find the courage to hope for a better future?
Similarly, when we rise for the confession of sins (the Al Chet), if we become fixated on the God we imagine we are petitioning rather than on the transgressions to which we have been witness and in which we have been the participants, we miss the opportunity to atone. Whether one is religious or secular, issues of sin, guilt, transgression, apology, atonement and forgiveness are issues that responsible human beings must engage. (Even secular Jews can sin, if by sin we mean a violation of trust, expectations, love or responsibility.)
Secular Jews, as well as religious Jews, often share the erroneous assumption that in order to recite or sing traditional Hebrew prayers, one must believe the words one is saying. This is not at all obvious to me. We manage to recite poetry, popular song lyrics, greeting card messages, and the Pledge of Allegiance without feeling morally compromised. Why does prayer have to be judged like philosophy, as true or false? Why can’t it be thought of as poetry, provoking reflection and invoking emotion? I do not require art, literature, poetry, and music to conform to a consistent and rational standard of truth, and I do not understand why my secular friends have such a hard time applying this type of aesthetic analysis to prayer and to the study of traditional Jewish texts.
Hebrew prayers can be seen as a form of quotation: I am saying (preferably singing) the words my ancestors said. It is rather like being in a theater production: the prayerbook is a script, the tallit and kippah are the costume, the shul is the stage. I don’t have to believe in the character I am playing or in the words I am saying in order to participate.
The English side of the prayerbook — now, that is a different matter. I will agree with my secular friends that too few prayerbooks take the time to explain that what is printed is poetry, quotation, archaic imagery, and myth, and need not be believed. (The current Reconstructionist Haggadah and High Holy Day prayerbooks are notable exceptions.) Why can’t the English side of the page be expanded to include probing and ambiguous poetry and prose (the writings of Yehuda Amichai and Leon Wieseltier come to mind), and edited to avoid the patronizing paraphrases and translations that alienate the intelligent synagogue participant?
All around us, we see a retreat from reason: the return to bland and banal (and, tellingly, generic) spirituality; the increasing attempt to invoke “religion” and “values” to sanction socially constructed economic, gender and political arrangements by imagining they are “God’s will;” the use of the word “secular” as if it were the opposite of “moral;” the pitting of one faith, nationality or culture against others through affirmations of “chosenness.”
In a world in which there is a shrinking middle ground between “religious” and “secular,” are the stakes too high to remain on the side of “religion”? If, for example, we are going to endure another round in the battle between “evolution” and “intelligent design/creation ‘science,’ ” have we the time and energy to explain yet again how one can be religious while believing in evolution? Notwithstanding the modern, progressive and critical forms of religion, the overwhelming majority of believers, regardless of which religion they endorse, remain wedded to some form of supernaturalism, to a belief in some cosmic force or reality, and to an understanding of themselves as characters in a cosmic drama directed by God. To affirm “religion” against “secularism” is therefore not only to sin against the light but to risk being associated with dark forces.
Perhaps the time is running out for accommodation between religion and secularism. But I still affirm (maybe even believe) that we can no more cede religion to fundamentalism than we can cede politics to fascism or economics to capitalism. I have seen, in the lives of people with whom I have worked as a rabbi, that at certain seasons of the year and at certain seasons of life there is no substitute for Jews for the richly evocative, emotionally powerful and historically grounded rituals, language and settings that one finds in Judaism. If there is a universal human need for meaning, as I believe there is, then there will always be a human need for religion, broadly defined.
It is not an easy accommodation to be a thorough-going secularist while finding meaning in the rituals and rhythms, texts and traditions, prayers and liturgy of Jewish religion. In the eyes of traditional “religious” Jews, pursuit of Kaplan’s heretical reading of Judaism makes one a renegade, while to secular Jews, the idea that one can maintain the assumptions of secularism and still participate in Jewish religious life (with the acknowledgement that it needs some redesign) may seem quaint, quirky or dishonest.
But Jewish secularism and Reconstructionist Judaism face a common problem. Both grew in an era when ethnic bonds, cultural familiarity, and family and community cohesion helped sustain Jewish identity. If contemporary surveys and studies are accurate, the decline of ethnicity and culture as bases of Jewish peoplehood is accelerating. Much as we may resist it, the collective survival of Jews in America is more likely to be as a religious community than as an ethnic one. If, therefore, we want the Jewish people to survive, if we believe that Jewish tradition at its best can provide a humane, responsible and moral way of living in the world, and if we want to purge Judaism of the supernaturalism that distracts us from seeing the human origins of our culture, we are going to have to find common ground.

It is telling, even hopeful, that Zionism — the fundamental heresy of Jewish modernity — has been embraced by nearly the entire spectrum of religious Jewry. It was, after all, largely secular Jews who took hold of the destiny of the Jewish people by rejecting traditional proscriptions against returning to Zion without the intervention of God’s messiah, and taking responsibility for the fate and future of the Jewish people through the creation of Israel.
Perhaps, in the postmodern period, it will be secular Jews as well who help to save Judaism by reengaging with Jewish religion while insisting on reading and living it on secular terms. Who knows but that this “heresy” may one day come to be accepted as the means by which the Jewish people and the Jewish religion were saved?

Rabbi Richard Hirsh is executive director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and editor of The Reconstructionist Journal.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.