My parents weren’t religious, yet they were proud members of the Jewish People, as were most of their contemporaries in pre-1939 Poland. The day World War II broke out and the Germans invaded the country, we fled with those who accurately sensed that the Nazis were bent on exterminating all Jews, whether religious or not.
When after the war we ended up in Sweden, the Jewish community there, like in other Scandinavian countries, described itself as the “Mosaic” congregation, implying that Judaism was the religion of Moses and the Jews weren’t really a people. Like other newcomers, we were baffled.
The tension between Judaism as faith and Jews as a people has resurfaced of late. In his book The Invention of the Jewish People, the Israeli historian Shlomo Sands insists that Judaism has never been anything but a religion. He has an anti-Zionist agenda that argues that, as there’s no Jewish People, Jews have no right to claim Israel as their own.
By contrast, the American Jewish historian Leora Batnitzky shows in her book, How Judaism Became a Religion, that there has always been a Jewish People. She maintains that turning Judaism into a faith community was a modern ploy to enable Jews to claim civic equality in the countries in which they lived.
“Mosaic” may thus have been a convenient though inappropriate description of Judaism in a misguided attempt to make it correspond to other religions.
Batnitzky’s agenda is to find a place within Judaism for self-proclaimed secular Jews. In the early stages of Jewish emancipation, to be secular in the western Diaspora came to express the ambition to assimilate into the surrounding culture. In Israel, as in eastern Europe, secularism has always affirmed Judaism as a legitimate expression of the people’s collective identity.
Though today about half of Israelis describe themselves as secular, some 80 per cent say they believe in God thus affirming – in the terminology of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism – that Judaism is a religious civilization that’s neither Mosaic nor Godless.
Religion now becomes primarily a personal commitment to God, while Jews are bound to each other as members of the same people with Israel as its historic homeland. Because of the influence that the Jewish state now has over world Jewry, Batnitzky’s view is being increasingly affirmed. To describe us as adherents of the Mosaic faith has become unacceptable; indeed, the communities in Scandinavia have dropped the term in favour of “Jewish.”
One of the manifestations in Israel of Batnitzky’s contention is the emergence of secular yeshivot. While Jews have usually associated the yeshiva with a religious, often Orthodox, orientation, these new yeshivot affirm that there’s much more to Judaism than religion.
Their curriculum includes Talmud, Midrash and Codes, like in the traditional counterparts, but they also study Bible and ancient and modern Jewish thinkers, as well as contemporary Hebrew writers. All are seen as part of the cultural and spiritual heritage of the Jewish People.
The aridity of the once allegedly widespread Israeli indifference to religion on the one hand and current haredi fanaticism on the other has prompted sensitive women and men to delve deeper into Jewish sources in search of roots, meaning and purpose.
Traditional yeshivot ordain rabbis, but that isn’t the aim of the secular yeshiva. Its students are exposed to Torah l’shma, learning for the sake of learning and spiritual enrichment, not for professional advancement.
Of late, however, some such places now authorize women and men to function not as rabbis but as officiants at life-cycle events to respond to the public demand for rituals based on traditional practices yet without the benefit of clergy.
Though this new trend may not become the normative Judaism of tomorrow, it’s attracting Jews in Israel and abroad. Secular congregations now exist in many countries, including Canada.
I belong to the world of organized religion and am very happy to be a Reform rabbi. Originally, it may have been my way of rebelling against the spiritual turmoil in which I was reared; today, it’s my way of being.
Nevertheless, I view recent attempts to affirm ostensibly secular Jewish learning and traditional Jewish practices as yet another, most welcome, way of making Judaism accessible to all. To separate faith from Jewish Peoplehood is artificial and misleading. A growing number of Jews have come to realize it. They deserve our support.