An Outside Look at Secular Judaism

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June 1, 2000
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Harvey Cox

First, some admissions. Although I am not Jewish, I do not write as an innocent bystander. Many years ago, I wrote a book called The Secular City, wherein I tried to rehabilitate the perfectly respectable term “secular.” Second, for fifteen years I have participated in – as far as my conscience would allow – the religious life of my Jewish wife. We light candles and bless the wine and bread each Sabbath, attend synagogue on major Jewish holidays, and perform a yearly seder in our home at Passover. I have read a lot more about Judaism than I ever intended to do, and have sat shiva for my wife’s relatives, prayed at the Wall (but then, so has the Pope) and helped prepare our son Nicholas for his bar mitzvah (which the Pope has not done).

I was raised a Baptist and still am, although have a yen for the “bells and smells” of a more liturgical worship. During the past fifteen years, I have found Judaism to be enormously attractive. I have come to love the tradition, most (but not all) of the prayers and rituals, and the profound depth of the spiritual literature. For all of these reasons and more, the question of whether there can be such a thing as “secular Judaism” interests me deeply.

The term “secular” comes from the Latin word “saeculum,” meaning “this present age.” It was first used to refer to ecclesiastical properties such as hospitals and schools that had been turned over to state auspices and thus “secularized.” Theologically, the word secular suggests a mentality directed more toward this present world, with all its seductions, opportunities, and pitfalls, than to a world above or beyond this one. In The Secular City I argued that such an attitude, far from being unchristian or nonbiblical, resonates deeply with the biblical God who creates this world, loves this world, and keeps trying (with the cooperation of human beings) to bring this world into its originally intended wholeness. In my view, then, “secular” is not a nasty word.

What about secular Judaism? Outside observers of the American religious scene are always amazed at two qualities of American religious life: its exuberant vitality and its dizzying variety. In contrast to most of Europe for example, interest and participation in religious life in America is astonishingly high. As well, the spectrum of religious possibilities is also unique. Most countries have a single, or at most two or three dominant religions with perhaps a few minorities. In America, the offerings on the religious menu resemble a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream emporium – more flavors than anyone could sample with new options added on a regular basis.

Liveliness and variety not only describe but also constitute the American religious scene. American religion is vigorous in part because it is so heterogeneous. It is variegated in part because the throbbing religious culture constantly invites new participants. There are, of course, dangers in this system: religious entrepreneurs holding out extravagant promises; religion becoming so “user friendly” it ceases to deliver much prophetic criticism or mystery; or competition so fierce that civil peace is threatened. But all in all, I think our wide-open system serves us well. In many other cultures, one is either a “believer” or an atheist. There are no other choices and no middle ground. But in America, the flavors range from the different Christian, Jewish, and Muslim orthodoxies through the conservative, middle-of-the-road, “mainline,” liberal options to post-Christian spirituality, religious humanism, New Age-isms, and – why not? – secular Judaism.

Can one be religious without believing in God? The answer is quite simple. Millions of people already are. Many of them are Buddhists, a spiritual tradition in which, at least in many of its branches, the belief in a deity is entirely optional. When I taught at the Naropa Institute several years ago, Chugyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to assure his students that whether they were theists or agnostics or atheists was a matter of complete indifference to him. Buddhism was about something else. But the adepts of the Enlightened One are not alone in this camp: thousands of Unitarian Universalists would also consider themselves agnostics.

The question of a Jewish secular Judaism remains. Unlike Buddhism, loyalty to God has been central to virtually every expression of Judaism for millennia. There are, however, large numbers of people today who consider themselves Jewish and are not theists of any recognizable variety. Many of them yearn for a spiritual home that would preserve their link to the Jewish people and the Jewish past but not require them to hold their breath and try to believe something they just do not believe. Surely such people deserve a place within what has traditionally been a faith based on practice, ethics, loyalty, and ethnic consanguinity, not on creeds. I hope a secular Judaism flourishes. I hope it nourishes a sense of mystery and depth, avoiding market values and the success ethic. The question, of course, is whether it will last. But I would prefer not to speculate about that. Only God, so to speak, knows.

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Harvey Cox is Professor of Divinity at Harvard University. His two most recent books are Fire from Heaven, and Religion in the Secular City.

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