THE BLOG
07/06/2012 09:20 am ET Updated 4 days ago

What Does It Mean to Be a Secular Jew?

According to an important 2001 survey, 44 percent of American Jews by religion claimed to be "secular," or "somewhat secular." I repeat: 44 percent!

The next religious group to embrace the "secular" designation with as much verve were Buddhists at 22 percent (which makes sense when you consider the Dalai Llama's views on secularism, see his recent book, "Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World").

Yet the question remains: What does it mean to be a secular Jew? Having studied the phenomenon for years, let me propose a good way to figure this all out: Let's not fix this fluid and complex identity into a tight definitional box just yet. Why not spend the next few years surveying the possibilities?

There are professors who think through this issue, philanthropic organizations such as the Posen Foundation (now led by the young and charismatic Jesse Tisch) and there is even a fully fledged religious denomination known as Secular Humanistic Judaism. All have their own take on the matter, and as far as I am concerned, for now it's all good. Secular Judaism is in its "discovery" stage.

SHJ, as the aforementioned denomination is sometimes called, is associated with the late Rabbi Sherwin Wine, a larger than life figure who broke from mainstream Judaism in the 1960s all the while intimating to Time Magazine that he did not believe in God. Its seminary, the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, is now located in Chicago under the leadership of Rabbi Adam Chalom, and I have always found the group to be both fun and serious.

SHJ also possesses an Israeli branch and on today's episode of Faith Complex we caught up with one of its most leading representatives, Rabbi Sivan Maas.

During our interview we discuss whether SHJ is doctrinally atheist as some have alleged. We also look at the reception of the small, upstart, denomination in Israel. Most interestingly, when I asked Rabbi Maas to describe SHJ in one word, she responded: "inclusion."

That's a great place to start as Secular Judaism comes into its own.