Explaining Jews, Part II: Why are most Jews secular?

Posted: Jan 24, 2006 12:05 AM
To understand Jews, one must understand that most Jews are not religious.

This is true even if our definition of "religious" is minimal, i.e., observant of any specifically Jewish religious laws, attends synagogue once a month or even declares a belief in God.

According to a 2003 Harris Poll, "Only 16 percent of Jews go to synagogue once a month or more often"; and regarding belief in God: "Protestants (90 percent) are more likely than Roman Catholics (79 percent) and much more likely than Jews (48 percent) to believe in God. Religious affiliation here includes many people raised as members of a religion or religious group, regardless of what they practice or believe now."

Why most contemporary Jews are irreligious, given that the Jews gave the world the Bible and introduced humanity to the God of monotheism, is a fascinating subject. It is also a vital subject given the role that secular Jews -- such as Marx, Freud and Einstein -- have played in forming the modern world.

One reason was traditional (Orthodox) Judaism's inability to keep most Jews religious once Jews were free to leave the ghettos and shtetls (small Jewish towns or villages throughout Eastern Europe) in which most Jews lived.

The only Jewish religious alternative was a new Jewish movement called Reform Judaism, begun in Germany in the beginning of the 19th century. But with all the good intentions of Reform's founders to stem the departure of Jews from Judaism, Reform retained little that was distinctively Jewish. It dropped kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws), Hebrew as the language of worship, Jewish peoplehood, opposed the return of Jews to Israel (Zionism), and allowed moving the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.

By the mid-19th century, some Jews broke away from Reform and founded Conservative Judaism, in order to "conserve" Jewish religiosity without being Orthodox.

While Reform and Conservatism appealed to many Jews, a deeply religious, God-centered alternative to Orthodoxy that can keep Jews religious has not yet arisen.

And why did most Jews reject Orthodoxy? Over the course of thousands of years, a combination of anti-Semitism and Orthodox Jewish law -- one of whose primary purposes was to keep Jews separated from the non-Jewish world -- kept Jews in isolation. And when any group has little or no interaction with other groups, its intellectual life begins to atrophy. This was not only true in Orthodox shtetls; it is a problem in much of the Islamic world today as well as in the secular liberal university.

Therefore, once Orthodoxy was exposed to the light of freedom, it had few rational or convincing responses to the modern world's challenges. Faced with the choice between science, Mozart, personal liberty and great literature on the one hand, and Orthodox isolation on the other, the choice for nearly all Jews was obvious.

And that brings us to a second reason for many Jews' irreligiosity. Jews decided that the secular world of the arts, the university and celebration of reason -- a world devoid of religion -- was the world for Jews to work for. Secular Jews are still believers in the Enlightenment (despite the anti-Semitism of Voltaire, the father of the Enlightenment, and despite the anti-Semitism of secular Europe).

Which brings us to the third reason. Along with their rejection of Jewish religiosity, Jews also feared and loathed their Christian neighbors' religiosity. European Jews had suffered for centuries from religion-based (especially European Christian) anti-Semitism. For example, Jews were tortured to death on a charge of "desecration of the host," which essentially meant being murdered for allegedly torturing a wafer. Christian anti-Semitism in Europe ensured that virtually no Jew would feel sympathetic to religion generally, let alone Christianity specifically. Therefore, when European culture began warring on Christianity, many Jews completely identified with the anti-religious warriors. Those warriors were the men of the Enlightenment, the self-righteous title the anti-Christians gave their movement.

Thus began the now centuries-old Jewish association of secularism and anti-religiosity (especially Christianity) with what most Jews deem is good for Jews. That America's Christians have founded the country that has provided the most blessed place in which Jews have ever lived -- and that many Christians are now the Jews' best friends in a world that has more anti-Semitism than at any time since the Holocaust -- has not changed many Jews' belief that the anti-religious, especially those trying to weaken Christianity's influence, are the Jews' natural allies.

A fourth reason for Jews' alienation is the huge percentage of Jews who attend university. A major aim of the university is to influence students toward secularism and away from the Judeo-Christian value system that America's values have largely been based on.

Fifth and finally, Jews have suffered a great deal throughout history, culminating in the Holocaust. This has further reinforced Jews' alienation from God and religion.

Given Jews' influence in America, itself the most influential society on Earth, their alienation from and hostility to religion and to Judeo-Christian values, the greatest value system ever devised and the one based on the Jews' own Bible, is a tragedy. But if this irreligiosity is to be undone, it must first be understood.