What, and why, is secular Judaism? Phoebe Maltz Bovy, defender of the (absence of) faith

Some of our Roths.

In the latest episode of Bonjour Chai, the one where Avi Finegold and I discussed secular-religious relations with Mark Oppenheimer, I represented the secular Jewish perspective. (You can listen to it here.)

During our conversation, Mark asked me to define what it meant to me to be a secular Jew. Here, I’m expanding on this, less to convince the reader to set his streimel aside and join me, than to explain what secular Judaism is all about. This is my attempt at articulating why a Jew would be secular, as well as why a secular person would call herself Jewish.

Secular Judaism is one thing in Israel, another in the Diaspora, though migration in both directions has a way of confusing some distinctions. I say “the Diaspora” but it’s different in each locale. The type of secular Jew that I am, coming, as I do, from New York City, where there are rather a lot of us, is going to be different from the sort who comes from a place without many Jews, and with no real secular Jewish culture. Even the non-Jews are Jewish in New York, so the saying goes.

In places with fewer Jews, and less of a secular Jewish culture, it might be more a way of saying that your heritage is Jewish, but you do not personally attend synagogue.

There is no one version of secular Judaism, constant across time and place. It’s a relatively new phenomenon, owing its existence to such things as the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the St-Viateur Bagel.

Secular Jews are in some sense a process-of-elimination category. If other Jews register you as Jewish, if antisemites hate you for being Jewish, but you are not a practising member of any religion, then you are a secular Jew. It’s roughly the same as being nominally Jewish. It’s Jewishness, rather than Judaism, perhaps. A convert from Judaism to another faith might be culturally or ethnically Jewish but is not, obviously, a secular Jew. I will not belabour the terminological aspects of this.

Secular Judaism is also, more neutrally, the same as any other ethno-religious category. Ever heard the expression, “Irish Catholic”? Or, “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant”? These phrases doesn’t imply anything particular about what a person believes, spiritually or politically. It’s just their heritage. No one is asking whether a preppy, country-club-going, emotion-repressing atheist is really a WASP, this even though “Protestant” is right there in the name.

“Secular” is a spectrum, and means different things to different people. It might mean avowed atheism, it might not. Secular Jews pick and choose from elements of their—our—religious heritage, but tend to interpret these as cultural, rather than spiritual, traditions. Though “pick and choose” suggests more intent than may enter into it.

Some of us do, and some of us do not, experience guilt over breaking with Jewish religious rules. Some of us don’t even know what the rules are to begin with. I was well into adulthood before I’d even heard of an eruv, or of the existence of such a thing as non-kosher cheese. (The true case for secularism: no restrictions when it comes to cheese.)

Some of us are secular because this is how we were raised. Others had negative experiences in religious settings, finding them either oppressive (say, growing up gay in a denomination that doesn’t do gay marriages) or just a bit limited.

The “limited” thing is, for observant Jews, a selling point. It’s community, it’s tradition. For secular Jews, it means life under unappealing or even unbearable—and entirely avoidable—restrictions.

A religion-only understanding of Jewishness means dismissing not only the gentile world, but also Philip Roth novels and Broad City and Yotam Ottolenghi recipes and so much more. Huge swaths of the culture, whose Jewishness is more than incidental, but is not of a religious nature.


And now, the elephant in the room: continuity.

The case against secular Judaism is that it will die out. Or, at least, that this is what will happen if no one throws philanthropic dollars towards preventing that outcome. And the Birthright-funding billionaire Michael Steinhardt is doing his darndest. But as goals go, promoting secular Judaism and encouraging continuity through endogamy are at cross purposes.

Indeed, Secular Judaism does not self-perpetuate, except in societies where de facto segregation—driven primarily by external, non-Jewish factors—is such that Jews and gentiles don’t mingle enough to marry. Here it’s worth remembering that there have been moments in European history when even converts from Judaism married one another, as versus marrying other Christians, because society itself remained divided.

But in more welcoming societies, people meet and fall in love with those around them, and with whom they share values and a way of life. And in this context, a secular Jew very well might have more in common with a secular person of another background than they do with an observant Jew. And if most of the people they meet aren’t Jewish, however open they are to finding a secular Jewish spouse, that becomes a less likely outcome. The children of two secular parents will have the culture of both parents, which, across generations, means that there are no guarantees of one heritage being embraced above all others.

But the incidentally endogamous should not get too smug. A secular Jew who happens to wind up with a secular Jewish spouse is merely kicking a can down the road. If your number one priority is upping the odds that your distant descendants are Jewish, you have to either move to Israel or become Orthodox, but probably both.

The secular Jews of today are generally not the great-great-grandchildren of secular Jews. Rather, go back a generation or two, and you will typically find observant Jews. This, even though there were, even back in the day, secular Jews. Sometimes their offspring became observant. Other times, over the generations, these families left Jewishness entirely.

Secular Judaism is thus not passed down, preserved, over generations. The Jewish comedians and novelists who resonate with a secular Jew born in one time and place may mean nothing to one born in another. Much as one might want to replace the Talmud with Portnoy’s Complaint (note: I am not attempting to do this; Seinfeld is another matter), it’s simply not in the cards.

That’s not to say that secular Jewishness is on its way out demographically. It regularly finds new members, as people who grow up in observant Jewish homes (or in Israel) find their way into secular, predominately-non-Jewish, society. Also as children of intermarriage, the ones raised in no particular religion, try to make sense of who they are, with many opting for Judaism. But it does not perpetuate itself through continuity, through the ages, in the way Steinhardt wished it would. That is, the multi-generational secular Jew might never be a meaningful phenomenon. And that’s fine.

Secular Judaism is an encounter of Jewishness with the secular world of a particular time and place, as mediated by individuals with one foot in each world. It can be what you are, and what you’re happy to be, without making it an agenda or a cause. There isn’t necessarily an outreach component. I see myself as promoting an expansive definition of Jewishness. The mixing of the Jewish and the secular is a wonderful thing. I do not, however, see my purpose on this planet to be repopulating it with as many people like myself as possible.

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