Can religious and secular Jews be friends? Phoebe Maltz Bovy takes a side in a fight that one American writer has picked with another

Mark Oppenheimer and Jessica Grose.

I was out jogging recently, listening, as I often do, to the Savage Lovecast. Dan Savage took a break from the usual round of sex questions on his show to answer an atheist lesbian outraged that her partner remained nominally Catholic. While both women are secular, the caller’s partner does things like participate in funeral services. The caller wanted Savage to tell the caller to cut all ties with the anti-queer, oh-so-evil church.

Savage instead sides with the partner. He explains that he, too, is a cultural Catholic, and will participate in religious rituals as appropriate, with his Catholic family. He is also a non-believer, as well as a frequent critic of religious fundamentalism and hypocrisy. He adds that he learned from his secular Jewish friends that it’s possible to tap into your religious heritage—and be respectful of religiously observant loved ones—without pretending that you, personally, are more pious than you are.

Going through the motions religiously is the only polite, normal-person thing to do in certain settings. Settings, that is, where the alternative is to throw a tantrum and perhaps hurl Christopher Hitchens books at your elderly relatives. But this kind of respect has to be a two-way street. (I do not expect that Savage disagrees; this is more of a yes-and.) If secular people owe religious ones basic courtesy, then religious ones owe it to the secular not to push religiosity on those who have already registered their lack of interest.

I was reminded of this when reading Mark Oppenheimer’s “open letter” to Jessica Grose, a New York Times columnist who has written about her own secular Judaism. Oppenheimer—a lovely person who was once my editor at Tablet, which he’s soon leaving in order to work on the authorized biography of author Judy Blume—digs into Grose’s oeuvre for references to her Jewishness, and determines that she is not so much secular as confused.

As is not uncommon for secular liberals, Grose embraces some aspects of spirituality or cultural-religious community, but draws the line at organized religion. To which Oppenheimer responds, “I think you misunderstand ‘organized religion,'” offering up his own definition.

I’m inclined to think Oppenheimer means well. He sees, in Grose’s writing about Judaism, numerous errors, and is setting out to correct those, as someone who’s far more up on what’s going on in the Jewish world. Fair enough.

And he insists that he’s not on some kind of blanket mission to up the religiosity of non-practising Jews generally.

“There are lots of secular or unaffiliated Jews whom I understand, and I don’t try to talk them out of their way of life, which may be entirely right for them… But I don’t think that’s you—indeed, you write that that’s not you.”

Except that it is who she is, per her own accounting, or else there would be no dispute to begin with. This is where things get dicey. Grose may have a writing style that lends itself to a hand-wringing stance, but is not this struggling, tortured soul. She is—to borrow a phrase—culturally Jewish.

The very concept of cultural Jewishness is off-putting, I’ve learned, to some observant Jews, who see it as a bit of a joke. It is not a joke, but rather its own hodgepodge identity, containing, yes, bits of decontextualized religious practice. It is not a failed attempt at contextualizing those practices.

Grose is also—as am I—married to a man who isn’t Jewish. To ask someone in a secular-all-around household, with children, to become observant is to suggest adding a conflict within their home. Maybe this is the part of it that is not sitting right with me. How would it feel if someone urged Grose’s husband to become a born-again Christian? Once you have a partner and kids, you can’t go on a personal spiritual quest without leaving some damage behind you.

Oppenheimer’s unsolicited message to Grose ends with a homework assignment of sorts:

“The series I hope you’ll do next is one in which you do religion… for, say, six weeks. On Friday nights and Saturday mornings, go to synagogue. Then, during the week, have coffee or tea or bagels with rabbis and cantors, rabbinic students and laypeople, Jewish nursery-school teachers and other people who are somehow making the communities run.”

If only she educated herself, she might just realize she had it all wrong, and adjust her life accordingly!

There’s something to be said for believing people when they tell you who they are. This comes up a bunch in terms of gender and pronouns. There, the respectful thing to do is to call someone what they wish to be called, and not what you think—either for abstract political reasons, or for ones based on how they come across to you—would suit them.

So, too, I think, with religion. If someone tells you they’re secular (or in this case, tells this to the New York Times readership), then this is not up for debate. You’re allowed to privately think that this person would enjoy becoming more observant, or indeed that she’d be living her best life as the Hasidic mother of 10. But unless someone specifically comes to you and asks for spiritual guidance, the answer is to let things be.

I enjoy doing the Bonjour Chai podcast with Montreal-based Orthodox rabbi Avi Finegold precisely because he does not use it as an opportunity to try to convert me—a nearly 40-year-old woman not on any kind of quest for meaning—into a more observant Jew than I am. Nor, I hope, do I spend our podcasts attempting to sell Avi on the advantages of being able to eat whatever you feel like without thinking about whether it’s kosher, or how glorious it is on a Friday night to stream Frasier.

I can’t speak for Avi, of course, but I know that I go into each episode assuming that he’s as confident that he’s living his life the right way as I am that I’m doing the same. In the podcast episodes, sometimes he educates me, and other times I educate him, but the idea is to inform each other, and in doing so, our listeners. We’re two different sorts of Jews, as well as quite simply two different Jews, two different people.

I tend to think grown adults know their own minds. But also, maybe, that there’s something Jewish about not proselytizing, even internally, and letting people find their own way in—if that even interests them to begin with.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz