Being a Secular/Humanistic Jew in Israel

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June 1, 2000
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Yehuda Bauer

It requires quite a lot of courage to be or to pronounce oneself a secular Jew. We represent a silent minority. Most people in our society who do not follow religious commandments or do not live an active religious life are not secular: they are just vacuum voids in their day-to-day life. We, however, want to combine a respect for Jewish traditions of the past with a secular outlook on today’s world. That is something quite different from what the so-called non-religious majority really wants, observes, or lives.

The problem that secular Jews face is vast because we are living amidst a tremendous revolution in which religious fanatacism in the world is growing rather than declining. Because we want the continuation of the Jewish tradition in a nonreligious way, we clash not only with the fundamentalists but also with the Reform and Conservative Movements. It is a friendly clash, because we have a lot in common, and strive for coalition-building with these movements. But one has to recognize the clear difference: both the Conservative and Reform movements are deeply committed religiously. And just as much as a Reform rabbi will be committed to his or her religious beliefs, so am I deeply committed to my non-religious beliefs. Surely the acceptance of a transcendental being that either gave the first push – the Aristotalian push – or has, in one way or another, an involvement with the history of the world is a basic question. If you accept that, then there are certain logical consequences. If you don’t accept that, there are other logical consequences.

For me, the existence of God after the Holocaust is impossible from a moral point of view. It makes belief in God a vast problem, quantitatively and qualitatively. One and a half million children – of the Chosen People – under the age of thirteen were murdered! This is not a question of free choice because the children didn’t have any free choice. It is the Nazis who had the free choice, not the children. So if there is a God that in one way or another controls the destiny of the world – even if that God retires and does not wish to do it, he can and he knows; otherwise he’s not a God. He’s responsible for the murder – no way out. No answer, human or divine, is satisfactory for the murder of one and a half million children – and if there is an answer from high above, then it is the answer of Satan, and rather than believe in Satan, I will not believe.

However, the traditions of a people that went through the Holocaust and tried to revive themselves are frightfully important, because it is their lives, their struggles, that we wish to continue, those of us who consider ourselves to be Zionists and humanists. We are in a very dangerous situation because the Jewish people are declining in numbers. Aside from Israel, there is not a single Jewish community in the world that is not declining in numbers, and this has nothing to do with biology and not terribly much to do with assimilation or Auschwitz. It’s simply that there is a cultural pessimism within the Jewish people, and that cultural pessimism expresses itself in the small number of children being born and in the way that many Jews look toward religion.

Where does that leave us? I think it leads to the realization that from the history of the Jewish people, from the traditions of the Jewish people, we must make choices. It requires a tremendous effort – a collective effort of many minds – to review the vast body of learning, literature, culture, and traditions that the Jewish people have produced. From this study, we might then choose what we need for our lives as humanists, as people who want to continue Jewish tradition in a nonreligious manner.

When I use texts written 2,000 years ago, I do not change them. Rather, I interpret the texts. In every generation the interpretation of halachah has been different. And if I suggest a secular interpretation of Jewish tradition, it is perfectly okay. In Jewish tradition – if you want to find precepts for genocide, they are available. If you are looking for antagonism toward non-Jews, violent hatred even, you will find it. If you want a humanistic approach to life, it is also in the text. Ideologies have changed, and we have changed with them. We are a people who have lived through a very long history, and therefore we have created teachings and practices good, bad, and indifferent. I am prepared to accept that as my tradition and choose from it what I want. That, to me, is essential for Jewish life in this country post-Holocaust, when I feel that the Jewish people are in danger of disappearance, and when I feel that there is an internal and external danger facing us. I feel that there is a danger that the social fabric in Israel will dissolve.

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Professor Yehudah Bauer is head of the Holocaust Studies Division of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at Hebrew University, Chair of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, and Honorary Co-Chair of the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews. Yehudah Bauer received the Israel Prize in 1998. His most recent books include A History of the Holocaust and Out of the Ashes. This article is adapted from "Being a Secular/Humanistic Jew in Israel" and reprinted with permission from Humanistic Judaism, 12:1, Spring 1984.

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