Response to Secular Judaism

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June 1, 2000
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Riv-Ellen Prell

One of the hallmarks of the postmodern world is an ever-growing spectrum of forms of religion and religious expression. While modernity produced the challenge to authority that, for example, created Judaism’s progressive and pietistic “denominations,” postmodernity has exploded and reconfigured the spectrum. Secular Judaism has been a product of both periods. The modern world gave rise to nationalism, ethnicity, and socialism, with Jews of this period creating movements that responded accordingly. These visions were committed to ideologies that in most cases dispensed with the God of Israel. More recently, secular Judaism in the United States has come to resemble a Jewish denomination with congregations that embrace aspects of Jewish religious tradition yet explicitly leave God out of their Judaism. In short, secular Judaism grew in the soil of the dominant culture and hence created a Judaism and Jewishness that was consonant with that world.

Israel, Europe, and the United States have defined this concept differently since the 19th century. From the period following World War II until the 1970s, American Judaism developed largely through suburban congregations representing three denominations with synagogues reflecting the values of the new Jewish suburban middle class. This synthesis was challenged by the 1960’s cultural revolution, which attacked social authority and institutions embraced most fully by the middle class. When the postwar synthesis crumbled, much greater variation in Jewish practice, identity, and religious organizational life followed.

By the mid-1970s, Jews increasingly wrote about and asked what have become quintessentially postmodern questions. “How do I create personal meaning as a Jew?” “What various traditions am I able to draw upon to synthesize an identity that works for me?” These questions had both “political” and “personal” consequences. The 1970s initiated an era when “identity” became central to progressive American politics.

In contrast to the secular Judaism of Israel that Yehuda Bauer describes (and to Europe earlier in this century), these essays are more concerned with personal meaning and the right of the individual to formulate a unique and intellectually viable relationship to broadly defined Jewish traditions. Like Judaism’s progressive denominations, a secular humanist Judaism challenges traditional authority and asserts its right to create a practice of its own choosing. In contrast with other denominations, secular Judaism abandons God, even metaphorically, and not only rejects traditional authority but adds a broad range of other authorities to draw upon.

Secular Jews may be found in all realms of Jewish life. A great many affiliated Jews devote far more time and commitment to federation life, for example, then to observance. Indeed, surveys of American Jewish attitudes and practices suggest that most Jews are fundamentally secular in that they pick and choose among the commandments, and the ones that they observe are most likely to be compatible with secular American society. Nevertheless, these Jews have not necessarily taken upon themselves the formal identity of “humanistic” or “secular” Judaism.

The secular humanistic Judaism of these essays more assertively challenges the norms of American Judaism. Unlike other forms of “progressive Judaism,” it requires a far more developed ideological commitment than what characterizes the “merely” unaffiliated or the Jew who belongs to a synagogue without really belonging. These essays suggest a highly principled ideology of Jewish life rather than a more typical, default membership in Judaism. The essays also reflect a growing pluralism within Jewish life encompassing a far wider range of worship styles and theologies than once imagined. Both Peter Schweitzer and Sherwin T. Wine look to their humanistic Judaism to underscore their commitment to the Jewish people, but they assert a fundamental right to reshape its practice in relationship to their own culture and without recourse to God. Secular Judaism clearly seeks to create community and to maintain crucial rites of passage like the bar or bat mitzvah. Linda Arking’s description of her daughter’s bat mitzvah, for example, underscores the power of shaping a ritual to one’s own specifications and creating a very personal synthesis of Jewish practice.

I am sure that these communities are beset by many of the same challenges of liberal Judaism that are its great strengths. The more that Jews are empowered to search out their own meanings, to choose from the array of Jewish resources, the more complicated the task of negotiating the foundation of community and the transmission of a culture that informs those very resources. Nothing characterizes the postmodern moment more than the bedeviling problem of community. Though we live in a global community unfettered by boundaries or time zones, we must still confront the task of linking our histories and our lives to those who share them with us. The decision to make tradition an option and to fail to educate Jews to become cultural virtuosos inevitably creates the risk that each personal synthesis will isolate individuals rather than create Jewish peoplehood.

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Anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell is Professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her most recent book is Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender and the Anxiety of Assimilation.

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