09/11/2013 02:18 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

Bridging the Secular/Religious Divide in Ourselves and the World

Many of the thousands of Jews attending Yom Kippur services this year will do so despite complex and ambivalent feelings about religion, and regardless of uncertainty (or outright skepticism) about belief in God. I am glad those Jews will be in synagogue. A lot of good is accomplished thanks to the age-old Jewish process of return and renewal. Communities are revitalized and relationships repaired. Still, I am not sure we serve these Jews as well as we could by subjecting them to a liturgy that presumes a year-round regimen of practice in which they do not engage, and assumptions about life and death that they do not share. Numerous jokes and statistics about "three-day-a-year Jews" bear witness to the fact that High Holiday observance rarely persuades Jews to walk throughout the year on the path defined by Jewish tradition. It behooves all those who care deeply about the future of Judaism to wonder why.

I'd like to suggest an answer that turns attention away, for a moment, from what does and does not take place in the synagogue: the quality of the music and the sermon; the fit between prayers and pray-ers; the seriousness of purpose displayed by the congregation. Let's focus, instead, on an underlying premise of much observance that I believe is highly problematic: namely, that Yom Kippur is meant to be a religious occasion, and that its purpose is somehow to get Jews to be more religious. I don't think that premise is correct if we take the word religious in its normal contemporary sense (the opposite of secular) -- and it is certainly not helpful. To become more religious, if the usual usage holds, a Jew would need to become less secular -- an idea to which most contemporary Jews take serious objection. They like their lives in the secular world just fine, and would never think of abandoning all that we associate with that world: science and medicine, television and the arts, the fabric of daily existence with family and friends. If we are to reach such Jews with the liturgy of Yom Kippur, we need to grapple with this fundamental issue of self-definition that seems to bar the way to greater observance.

The irony is that the Judaism I've been taught all my life -- the Judaism of the Bible and the Rabbis -- also has no interest in the religious/secular dichotomy. Jewish tradition has never fit comfortably inside the notion of religion. Fasting and prayer are two among many hundreds of commandments meant to guide Jews to a good life and a better world. The Hebrew Bible includes legislation and narrative concerning politics, economics, social justice, and the arts; profound philosophical ruminations and moral insights; one of the greatest love poems ever written; and bloodcurdling tales that highlight the limits, use, and abuse of power. Major sections of the Talmud and subsequent legal codes, likewise, cannot be contained inside any narrow definition of religion. They remind us that the Torah does not command Jews to be religious, but holy. That requires action outside the sanctuary more than inside it; seven days a week, and not just one.

Jews uncomfortable with the call to religion sense correctly that the language of religious versus secular is false to critical components of their deepest commitments, and to some of what is most valuable in their personhood. This is perhaps most evident in the State of Israel, where the words hiloni (secular) and dati (religious) are used both descriptively and polemically to denote two distinct portions of the population. But many so-called secular Jews are more observant, according to recent surveys, than many Jews in North America, who are defined by the survey researchers as "Jews by religion" because they belong to a synagogue or fast on Yom Kippur. I think of a man who survived the Holocaust by fleeing to Siberia, returned to Poland after the war to rescue hidden children, smuggled them into Palestine despite the British blockade, helped build a kibbutz with his bare hands, and fought in three wars. Twentieth-century Jewish history was imprinted on every fiber of his being, and touched each pore of his skin. Does the word secular capture what is most essential about him, or of countless Israelis -- and North American Jews -- and members of other communities and traditions? I think not.

Or take a great work of literature such as Moby Dick, which I had the privilege of rereading this summer. Shall we call the book or its author or narrator religious because an early chapter recounts a sermon given in a Nantucket church, and because the characters and cadences of the Bible are pervasive from start to finish? Maybe so; it would without doubt diminish Melville -- and prevent us from grasping what is at stake in Ahab's battle with the white whale -- were we to label either of them as (merely) secular. Melville is not so much religious as he is biblical -- indeed, prophetic -- in his call to the serious life. Jews read Jonah in synagogue on Yom Kippur afternoon, and -- if they bring Moby Dick along -- will encounter Jonah there too (he is the subject of that Nantucket sermon), and receive a similar address to turn away from sin, turn toward our "shipmates" with love and understanding, and pay more attention to the Creator and creation.

Literary scholars have long noted parallels between the Torah's attention to details of purity and sacrifice and Melville's insistence that we know everything there is to be known about whales and the industry of whaling. It's not a matter of religion in either case, I think, but of facing up to what is involved in killing fellow creatures of God so that we might live, eat, clothe ourselves, and have light in our dwellings; confronting our own mortality and the less-than-noble aspects of ourselves; and thinking about God in the context of everything we know and have experienced, rather than as a catechism or set of religious teachings. The Rabbis put Isaiah at the very center of the Yom Kippur service so that, in the midst of fasting and prayer, Jews would remember that both of these are means and not ends. "No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness . . . and let the oppressed go free."

Religious and secular are not easily distinguished for anyone who heeds Isaiah's call. The world awaits our response.