Secular Judaism isn’t anything new. Its been around since the early twentieth century, waned and then gained momentum again after the Six Day war, dipped again but is now on the rise once again. Secular Judaism was once a potent force in mid nineteenth century Eastern Europe. The Jewish enlightenment or the haskalah was a fabulous movement of fecund, effervescent intellectuals seeking to find Jewish expression outside of the confines of halachic Judaism. They understood that Judaism was more than a conglomerate of laws – of do’s and don’t’s, but a rich textured culture including language, arts, ethics, history, sacred text and literature and poetry. It was the haskalah that eventually gave birth and intellectual expression to Zionism, the civil religion of the Jewish people.
Along the way, and in particular in America the growth and development of denominational Judaism gained hegemony giving new definition to the Jewish community. Peoplehood gave way to religion. We were no longer seen as a people but as another religious community in America. But what happens if you don’t subscribe to religious practice? What happens if you don’t believe in God? Do you cease to be Jewish? The answer is clearly no. Believing in god is a faith commitment. Judaism isn’t structured on faith but centered on behavior as manifested through the performance of mitzvoth. Thus, secular Judaism has once again reinvented itself and come back stronger than ever with a message to the Jewish community that you don’t have to believe in god to be a good Jew. Perhaps secular Judaism will never rise to the prominence of the three major denominations (although it is probably competing with Reconstructionist Judaism, the 4th leg), but they have a refreshing integrity that we can all learn from.
The American Jewish community as per its development seems most comfortable as another faith system along side other Christian denominations. Just like the American Protestant pays lip service to its creed, so to, do our liberal minded Jews enjoy attending services on the High Holidays, proclaiming belief and faith in God (whatever that means) and then filing it away until the next time. Their rabbis, of course reflect the sentiments of their followers. It’s hard to put my finger on the true faith of the typical liberally trained American rabbi.
Do they believe in God? Who knows! Reconstructionist rabbis, as their organizational name suggests have reconstructed Judaism and redefined the God of the Hebrews. For them it isn’t a personal god as much as it is something akin to nature. Once you pull back all of the layered gobbledygook they are very similar to Humanistic Judaism which places a premium on ethics and the centrality of man rather than god. Reform and Conservative rabbis love evoking God in their sermons, but have a difficult time not sounding like their Christian counterparts. Did god give the Israelites the Ten Commandments or the Torah or was it just divinely inspired. A truly orthodox rabbi will without hesitation tell you that it was clearly Hashem who gave the “law” to the Israelites; it was Moses who merely transcribed that what Hashem directly dictated to him, and it was the voice of Hashem that was heard at Sinai. There is no hesitation in this answer, as incredulous as it may sound to many of us. I love hearing my friends echo and affirm this theological truth because they say it with deep faith.
I have never met a Reform or Conservative rabbi who bought into this theology. I do however, remember a reform rabbi while eating a non kosher pastrami sandwich at a neighborhood kosher style deli, tell me that that the sinaitic experience was an epiphany
So then what do they believe? I don’t know. Moreover, I don’t think that they know, although they will never admit to this. There was a time when their predecessors, the first generation graduates of Central or Eastern European yeshivot, founders of their movements, had a clear and unequivocal answer. What I am convinced of is that most of them do not subscribe to a personal God defined as “hashgacha pratit”, where God intervenes in history and in the lives of people in a direct way. In a sense then there is an innate dishonesty in these movements.
As I see it there are only two honest choices: either you subscribe to orthodox Judaism and buy into the notion that the Torah is divinely given (not inspired) and you live as an halachic Jew, or you subscribe to Secular Judaism that opts away from God centered Judaism to man centered.
What Secular Jews and Orhtodox Jews have in common is that they take the study of text seriously and there is a consistency between what goes on at home and how they live their lives. While Orthodox Jews treat the texts as sacred with divinity attributed to them secularists treat the text as sacred because they are the national treasure of the Jewish people. The difficulty I have with the new breed of Secular Jews is that they have traded their tribal identity for a global one. Thus, for them Israel is no longer a critical component of the equation as it was with their ancestors the maskilim who gave birth to secular Judaism. I suspect that as some maskilim who became communists and turned to Moscow rather than Jerusalem ultimately learned – a Jew can never turn his back on his people.