One of the most interesting things that I do as a rabbi is engage in conversations with people who define themselves as "secular Jews" or "cultural Jews." I find it interesting because these are good, serious and thoughtful people, usually deeply committed to Judaism, who struggle with big religious questions in a way that makes no sense.
The people to whom I refer talk about themselves as people of reason and not of faith -- as champions of modernity rather than slaves to some concept of God or other outmoded patterns of belief. They pride themselves on thinking clearly and critically. They refuse to accept the dictates of the divine or the absolutes of the Jewish religion -- or any religion. They are ready, they say, to throw off the oppressive power of the past. If there is truth, they tell me, they insist on their right to shape it themselves.
And yet, in their next breath, they assure me that they are "proud secular Jews."
But where is the logic in that?
Their act of belonging -- and belonging to a people that for most of its history has been set apart and oppressed -- is not reasonable at all; it is, in fact, a supreme act of irrationality, and yes, of faith. The very people who speak the language of personal freedom are subordinating their own personal freedom to the Jewish enterprise. Those who reject religious commitment in the name of self-expression are accepting, at least in some measure, the commitment of Jewish belonging.
And when I point this out, and note that their Jewish identification contradicts their idea of critical thinking and unalloyed reason as the ultimate good, they tend to reply that, well, they are not identifying at all with religion but with the Jewish people.
The first problem with this response, of course, is that embracing a people is no more rational an act than embracing God or religion. It too is an act of faith.
And the second problem is that the Jewish people cannot be separated from God. The Jews came into being as a people at Sinai, waiting in readiness for the revelation of Torah; they are not now, and have never been, simply another ethnic grouping. For Jews, Jewish ethnicity does not stand apart from faith and community does not stand apart from Jewish law. Absent their religious essence, the Jewish people withers and dies.
In my experience, Jewish secularists understand this on some level, even if they have trouble acknowledging it. No matter how much they may scoff at religious belief, if you ask them "WHY do you identify with the Jewish people?" they will inevitably refer to values such as social justice, hospitality and mentschlikeit (decency) -- values that are grounded in the sacred texts of Jewish religious tradition and that have endured solely because of the authority that the religious tradition imposes.
And this too: Secular Jews, no matter how many times they say they have no faith, return again and again to places of faith. I usually, although not always, encounter them in the synagogue, which may be a venue for communal gathering but is, primarily and inarguably, a religious institution. And when they speak of the "cultural" practices that tie them to the Jewish world, they speak, usually lovingly, of those acts of family life and communal celebration that are either explicitly religious or that radiate with the power of deep faith and sacred possibility.
I am not without sympathy for those who see themselves as secular. They distance themselves from religion because they reject the intellectual certainty and the extremism with which it is too often associated; as a liberal religious Jew, I reject these things as well. At the same time, I know that Judaism properly understood is not about either certainty or extremism; it is about hope, rooted in a commitment to sacred community and to God.
In short, "secular Jews" and "cultural Jews" may think that they can wring the holiness out of their Jewish identity and practice, but they cannot. Jewish socialists tried and failed; secular Zionists tried and failed. And every other attempt to create this separation has failed as well. The Jews as a people and a culture do not exist in isolation. God has made a covenant with them, and this covenant provides the ground for all Jewish existence.