The Enduring Preciousness of the Secular Jew
We live in an age of unabashed irreverence. Debunking has become the norm, and at every turn we experience a need to expose the clay feet of even the greatest. Human dignity, a phrase often mentioned, has become a farce in real life. Instead of deliberately looking for opportunities to love our fellow humans, as required by our holy Torah, many have rewritten this golden rule to read: “Distrust your fellow humans as you distrust yourself.” People’s lack of belief in themselves has spilled over into their relationships with others. Fearing their own deeds and mediocrity has led them to believe that moral and spiritual greatness has left us and that we are a generation of spiritual orphans.
This condition has slowly entered the subconscious of segments in the religious community as well, although in a more subtle form. Influenced by materialistic philosophies, many religious people who once revered their fellow humans have unknowingly become part of the problem. Instead of sending a message of unconditional love and respect for fellow Jews, whatever their background or beliefs, many within the religious Jewish community have fallen victim to debunking others, which has led to a most worrisome situation in and outside of the Land of Israel.
When observing even those who are fully committed to helping fellow Jews find their way back to Judaism, we see an attitude that is foreign to religious life and thought. We cannot escape the impression that some people, without denying their love for their fellow Jews, tend to talk down to secular Jews. This has become the norm. Constant emphasis is placed on the need to fix the secular person’s mistaken lifestyle. No doubt such an attitude is born out of love, but it lays the foundation for infinite trouble. It is built on arrogance.
While religious Jews are seen as the ideal, they turn secular Jews into second-class members of the Jewish people. It is they who need to repent for their mistaken ways. Such an attitude is built on notions of disparity and lack of affinity. The secular Jew will always feel inferior. As such, the point of departure from which one reaches out to bring fellow Jews closer to Judaism is its undoing. The suggestion that “one should throw oneself into a burning furnace rather than insult another person publicly” (Berachot 43b) may very well apply, since it is the community of secular Jews that is being disparaged and treated as inferior.
For people to bring their fellow Jews back to Judaism there is a need to celebrate the mitzvot that secular Jews have been observing all or part of their lives, not to condemn their failure to observe some others. Only on the basis of sharing mitzvot will an authentic way be found to bring Jews back home.
The foundation should be humility, not arrogance. There is little doubt that secular Jews, consciously or unconsciously, keep a large number of commandments. Many of them may not be in the form of rituals, but there is massive evidence pointing to secular Jews’ commitment to keeping interpersonal mitzvot. Beneath the divisiveness of traditional commitment lie underpinnings of religion such as compassion, humility, awe, and even faith. Different are the pledges, but equal are the devotions. It may quite well be that the meeting of minds is lacking between religious and non-religious Jews, but their spirits touch. Who will deny that secular Jews have a sense of mystery, forgiveness, beauty, and gentleness? How many of them do not have inner faith that God cares? And how many will not show great contempt for fraud or double standards? Each of these is the deepest of religious values.
This not only calls for a celebration but may well become an inspiration for religious Jews – not just by honoring secular Jews for keeping these mitzvot, but by renewing these and other good deeds themselves. There is a need to make the non-observant Jews aware of the fact that they are much more religious than they may know. To have them realize that God’s light often shines on their faces just as much if not more than on the faces of religious Jews.
Just as non-religious Jews need to prove that they are worthy of being friends with religious Jews, so too must religious Jews be worthy of the friendship of their secular fellow Jews. It would be a most welcome undertaking if the religious would call on their secular fellow Jews for guidance in mitzvot that demand their own greater commitment.
There is a significant need for calling Jews back to their roots by showing them that they never left. Once religious Jews learn that secular Jews are their equals, not their inferiors, a return to Judaism on equal terms will come about.
One of the tragic failures of the ancient Jews was their indifference to the Ten Tribes of Israel that were carried away by Assyria after the Northern Kingdom was destroyed. Overlooked, and not taken seriously by their fellow Jews, they were consigned to oblivion and ultimately vanished.
This is a nightmare that, at this moment in Jewish history, should terrify each and every religious Jew: the unawareness of our being involved in a new failure, in a tragic dereliction of duty.
*Title based on the writings of Avraham Joshua Heschel
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— Nathan Lopes Cardozo