Philosophical Roots of Secular Jewishness/Judaism
By DR. PAUL G. SHANE
The Secular Jewish
movement is composed of those who, in the words of Saul Goodman in his book The Faith of
Secular Jews, seek to integrate the “prevalent ideas of modern
Western culture with the historic Jewish heritage.” The movement is focused on
human endeavor and life on earth. Secular Jews believe that the Jewish religion
grew out of Jewish culture, of which that religion is a part.
Secular Jewishness (or as some prefer, Secular Judaism) is based on three
1. The most important of these is the survival and continuity of the Jewish
people. Secular Jews are an integral part of the Jewish people and identify
with its history and culture.
2. The second central idea is that humans are responsible for what happens on
earth, beyond that which is controlled by natural forces over which humankind
(so far) has no control. They believe that the secular ideals of the Hebrew
prophets—a world of sufficiency for all, with peace and justice—will not occur
without human action.
3. The third central idea is that life is the most important focus of human
activity and ideals. Very much part of mainstream Jewish thought is the concept
that actions speak louder than words.
None of these three central concepts are divorced from Jewish “normative”
tradition except for the belief that humans are the only conscious power.
Secularists of today accept no philosophical dogma. Belief in the supernatural
is neither encouraged nor discouraged. It is considered a private matter.
The Jewish people and their philosophical system—which we identify as Judaism—were
from the very beginning concerned about secular issues: life, relations between
people, relations with other peoples, ethics, and morals. The Tanakh and Talmud
have much in them that is secular in concern and content. What one did was
thought to be more important than what one believed.
Several times in Jewish history—particularly during the Renaissance, the
Enlightenment, and then again in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—many
Jews shed the “religious” or God-oriented elements of their Jewishness. Yet
they refused to be totally assimilated into their societies or adopt the
religious beliefs of others.
During the great migration of one hundred and more years ago, Jews fled the
constrictions and persecution in Europe for a “modern” life concerned with many
of the same secular concerns that had always been present in Jewish culture.
There were many approaches to what Jewish life should look like in the modern
era, but secular Jews agreed that the realization of their ideals depended on
human rather than supernatural intervention. Modern Zionism, for example, went
against the long-held belief that the return to our “original” homeland would
only occur when the Messiah came. Zionists were unwilling to wait for heavenly
action, understanding that the return to and the building of a nation would
need to be done through human endeavor. The same response found expression in
the various forms of socialism, cultural autonomy, territorialism, and so forth
that became extremely popular among Jews of the time in the U.S., England,
France, Germany, and the heartland of Jewish life, Eastern Europe. (Tony
Michels describes the thinking, ferment, and excitement of this period in his
Fire in Their Hearts.)
In the late 18th century, Jewish intellectuals began a Jewish Enlightenment, or
haskalah, which flourished in the
19th century. After the French Revolution, Jews in much of Europe were allowed
and wanted to join the larger society in which they lived. Unfortunately,
Yiddish, the language of the mass of Jews, was thought by some to be inferior.
As a result, a successful merger with the modern world was possible only for
those who spoke the language of the dominant culture.
At the end of the 19th century, Jewish intellectuals began to lose their
disdain for Yiddish—the language of the Jewish masses both in Eastern Europe
and the immigrants to the Americas (this is set out in detail in the book The
Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture by David Fishman). They began
a conscious building of Yiddish into a modern language of learning, science,
the arts, and literature. Intellectuals like Chaim Zhitlovsky,
Simon Dubnow, and others set out to develop a secular, cultural philosophy of
Jewishness. A similar development took place in the development of modern
Theodore Herzl, usually considered the founder of modern secular Zionism, set
forth the concept of the Jews as a separate people or nation needing their own
land and developing a modern Jewish culture. The dream of the messianic era was
transposed into a dream of a “better and more beautiful world.” Most of the
Jewish religious establishment of the time strongly opposed these movements and
developments. The Orthodox rejected modernization and any changes in Jewish
life without a Messiah. Others preferred the French idea of rejecting Jewish
peoplehood. They opted instead for a purely religious definition of Jewishness
as, for example, “Germans of the Mosaic Faith” (or Russians, Poles, Serbs,
French, Italians, etc., of the Mosaic Faith.)
Secularists developed Yiddish theater, literature, poetry, and art to enhance
Jewish self-esteem and help Jews adapt to a “new” world as Jews. Jews were to
engage in science and active participation in the intellectual life of Western
society, as Jews. Previously,
Jews who wanted to participate in the larger world had often converted to
Christianity, with some notable examples being Heinrich Heine, Gustav Mahler,
and the Mendelssohn children.
As the idea of cultural Jewishness developed around the turn of the 20th
century, Chaim Zhitlovsky set out guidelines for a network of secular Jewish
schools, either as full educational institutions or to supplement governmental
education. They were to teach children Jewish culture as part of modern
civilization. From this grew several systems of Yiddish-oriented, secular
Children’s schools that spread throughout the United States and Eastern Europe.
The most prominent were those of the Workmen’s Circle and the Labor Zionists.
The philosophical underpinning of these developments was that Jewish history,
experience, and culture—without supernatural embellishments—were themselves
sufficient to sustain Jewish peoplehood in a world of science and secularism.
The secular ideal was human action, in Jewish formats, to change society and
end the persecution of the Jewish people. The secularists opposed assimilation
in favor of a proud affirmation of being part of the history and culture of the
Jewish People, autonomous and self-directed, equal partners with all other
peoples in the movement of human history and knowledge. Modern-day Secular,
cultural, humanist Jews and Jewish organizations continue that proud heritage
This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice and is published with the publisher’s