Nov 2007 Journal
Defining a secular Jew (Point of View)
Let us start with the definitions of the word ‘secular’ as given in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary in the sense that troubles Martha Blend (September): ‘Concerned with the affairs of this world, wordly not sacred, not monastic, not ecclesiastical, temporal, profane, lay’. Martha Blend’s interpretation - that being a secular Jew means ‘respecting the Jewish contribution to culture and standing up for Jews if they are attacked’ – is fine. But this is not limited to secular Jews: observant Jews practise these principles to a considerable extent. As for her reference to the dietary laws, these never had anything to do with refrigeration - a pork chop goes off as quickly as a kosher lamb chop! As for synagogue services being ‘alien to the Western tradition’ (whatever these two words might mean), this suggests she has been exposed to only one type or a limited number of such services. Today there are so many versions that one often cannot even recognise that their form of worship belongs to the same religion! And why is a framework to life ‘nebulous’?
To be a Jew is to be a member of a world community with a code of living that has survived for over three millennia and outlasted many other civilisations. Notwithstanding countless attempts by other communities to destroy the Jewish people, it is a way of life based on a set of rules and laws, which have been the basis of numerous civilisations. It teaches us to, inter alia, respect other human beings, live within the framework of a family, be charitable, strive for peace for all mankind, and educate our children to become upright citizens. All this can be done without setting foot in a synagogue and those who choose to do that are sometimes referred to as ‘secular’. But let us never forget where these standards were first laid down. Going to a synagogue to pray is just another way of observing the traditions, which are fundamental to this lifestyle.
Judaism is adapting to change all the time without compromising fundamentals, but one has to understand the basic principles. There are, of course, some communities that attempt change of a more radical form. I have no fear for the survival of Judaism unless we ourselves denigrate it or water it down to become indistinguishable from non-Jewish society. How often has it rightly been said that we are our own worst enemies!