01/28/2013 12:35 pm ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

Let Secular Jews Be Secular Jews

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, is widely recognized, and appropriately, as one of the most thoughtful Jewish leaders of our time. He has championed many worthy causes; may he do so for many years to come. But in a recent contribution to The Huffington Post, while swinging for a home-run, Yoffie struck out.

Rabbi Yoffie sketches a caricature of a straw man -- the secular or cultural Jew -- and then sets out to demolish it. We object both to the sketch and to the demolition.

The sketch: Secular Jews, Yoffie claims, regard 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 seek to "throw off the oppressive power of the past." But their struggle with big religious questions "makes no sense."

Set aside the irony that Yoffie's description of so-called secular Jews rather closely mirrors the tradition of Reform Judaism. He faults the secular Jews for a seeming contradiction: On the one hand, they abjure faith-based argument; on the other, they count themselves as devoted Jews, itself, for Yoffie, an act of faith.

But that is hardly an indictment; it is to mistake a part for the whole. True, some cultural or secular Jews can be dismissive of faith, if by faith we mean God-oriented belief. But nothing prevents honorable people from adhering to a faith pointed in other directions. One may, for example, have faith in the improvability of humankind, or in progress as the underlying cadence of the universe -- both, it would seem, are more dependent on faith than on empirical evidence. Rabbi Yoffie acknowledges as much when he asserts that "embracing a people is no more rational an act than embracing God or religion. It too is an act of faith."

Indeed. So what's the problem?

It may come as no surprise that for this leading Reform rabbi, the Jewish people cannot be separated from God. The Jewish religious narrative -- one shared by Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and other religious Jews -- does, in fact, privilege God, along with Torah, text, ritual, liturgy, rite and ritual. In this religious view of Jews and Judaism, Jews came into being as a people (read: ethnos) at Sinai, waiting in readiness for the revelation of Torah. Accordingly, Jewish ethnicity is inseparable from faith; and community does not stand apart from religious law and worldview. Yoffie holds that absent their religious essence, the Jewish people withers and dies.

If that be so, we beg Yoffie's pardon. In our experience, secular Judaism is very far from withering, much less dying. Quite the contrary: A large number of Jews find Jewish identification and involvement in an entirely comfortable mode even if it is, in their view, more cultural than religious. Indeed, asked about how they define themselves in a national survey of American Jews sponsored by the Workmen's Circle and conducted by Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Abrams, just 13 percent checked "to a great extent" when asked whether they were religious Jews. By contrast, slightly more - 16 percent -- called themselves secular Jews, and a hefty 36 percent saw themselves as cultural Jews. Rabbi Yoffie may be right about what for him is the disturbing excess of cultural (and even secular) Jews over religious Jews; but, at the same time, cultural (and even secular) identity is alive and well, and it's
"religious" that is the less widely chosen self-definition.

Perhaps the large number of cultural and secular Jews has perceived that the only Jewish consensus regarding God is that if there is one, there is only One. Beyond that, descriptions and definitions are for the most part highly personal and hardly in accord with traditional Jewish perspectives.

Yoffie wants us to believe that "values such as social justice, hospitality and mentschlichkeit (decency) ... are grounded in the sacred texts of Jewish religious tradition and ... have endured solely because of the authority that the religious tradition imposes." He does not recognize that by now these values have momentum on their own, that their derivation may be interesting to historians and theologians, but are of very little interest to their practitioners, including the thousands of Jewish social activists who champion the social and economic justice causes of labor, civil rights, peace, freedom, human rights, feminism and, most recently, environmentalism.

Yoffie complains that these allegedly faithless secular Jews continue to assemble in synagogues and to undertake acts of family life and communal celebration that are either explicitly religious or that radiate with the power of deep faith. Indeed, he may be drawing upon his familiarity with his own Reform movement. In the same survey we find that of those identifying as Reform, just 6 percent (6 percent!) see themselves as religious Jews "to a great extent." Among the same Reform Jews three times as many (18 percent) see themselves as secular, and nearly seven times as many (41 percent) call themselves
cultural Jews.

The self-ascribed definitions as religious, cultural and secular blend into one another. Most who see themselves as at least somewhat religious also see themselves as equally cultural. In fact, about 40 percent of all American Jews call themselves both at least somewhat religious and at least somewhat cultural.

These blurry and fuzzy patterns stand in stark contrast with Yoffie's binary view of the world, one which sharply divides the faithful from the faithless. "I know," Yoffie writes, that Judaism is "rooted in a commitment to sacred community and to God." Accordingly, "'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."

This is well-trodden territory, a kind of Jewish religious imperialism. "You may think you are secular," the argument goes, "but underneath your cloak of secularity you are faith-filled (even though not necessarily faithful) and if I am mistaken about that then you are assuring that the Jews will wither and die."

One wonders if Yoffie has taken to relating to cultural and secular Jews the way Orthodox Jews have often related to Reform, asserting a claim to authentic Torah-true Judaism and dismissing the distinctive virtues of the stubbornly ignorant and resistant others. Just as some Orthodox leaders can't let Reform Jews be Reform, Rabbi Yoffie can't let cultural Jews be cultural.

Yoffie wants to make claims about Judaism's authentic roots. We prefer to give primacy to Judaism's wonderfully varied branches. One of those branches is Reform Judaism, Yoffie's obvious favorite; but just as assuredly, another is secular or cultural Judaism. And it is a great pity that Yoffie cannot being himself to acknowledge the authenticity of that sensibility, much less its transcendent (shall we say, religious?) quality. And it is an even greater pity, if not irony, that one of the most articulate and compelling advocates of religious pluralism cannot bring himself to celebrate the virtues and distinctiveness embodied in pluralistic cultural and secular approaches to being Jewish not only in America, but in Israel and the world as well.