Secular Jewishness – What does it stand for?
Secular Jewishness is identifying as a Jew through Jewish culture and history, rather than religious ritual and practice, which is considered an individual matter. Secularism has a long history in Jewish thought, reaching as far back as the Prophets’ opposition to priestly rituals and social injustice, to Enlightenment thinkers such as Spinoza, and to early 18th century hasidic movements which challenged rabbinic traditionalism.
In the late 19th century in Eastern Europe and North America, there was an explosion of Jewish literary creativity and a passionate commitment to ideologies that sought to rid the world of oppression and discrimination through social movements that transformed what it meant to be a Jew. “Yiddishkayt” or Jewishness emphasized peoplehood as the distinguishing feature of Jews, rather than religious practices.
Secular Jews have made very important contributions to cultural and political life in the past century – Zionist organizations, communal fraternal organizations, and the Jewish labour/socialist movements. Secular Jewishness is the common inspiration for all the great works of modern Yiddish literature and theatre by giants such as Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz and Abraham Goldfadn. Jewish humour, folklore, folk songs, and the graphic arts are overwhelmingly influenced by a secularist approach to Jewishness.
In secular Jewishness, Jewish traditions are drawn upon for their beauty and depth, and are often adapted to be relevant to what it means to live in the world today. As Jewish identity is defined as inclusively as possible with respect to one’s heritage, families with mixed marriages are welcome.
Secular Jewishness emphasizes the social justice element of our tradition, the respect for working people and the right of every people to dignity and self-determination. As such, engagement in the struggle to make the world a better place is central to the identity of a secular Jew.