Nitzan Hamburg

The Secular Are Today’s Prophets

The term “Jew” has long been a source of contention in Israel. Its polysemy, encompassing both religious and ethnic identities, has spurred debates over what it means to be a “true Jew”. In Israel, a prevalent belief exists among some Jews that only Orthodox Jews embody the essence of true Judaism, considering all others to be mere temporary imitations.

Nevertheless, secular Jews do not view themselves as any less Jewish than their religious counterparts. They have not become separated from the people of Israel by adopting the “customs of the nations”, as is often claimed against them. Rather, they are the natural and direct continuation of the Judaism of their time.

In reality, numerous Jewish minds have contributed to the ideas that have shaped the modern liberal world we enjoy today. Thinkers like Baruch Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, Shlomo Maimon, David Ricardo, Karl Marx, Aletta Jacobs, Sigmund Freud, Magnus Hirschfeld, Isaiah Berlin, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, and many others have played significant roles in this intellectual journey.

Throughout the evolution of Judaism, secular Jews have seen themselves as the true Jews. Neither the Haskalah movement, the Age of Enlightenment, nor the emancipation, made them so, and neither did the Protestant Reformation. In fact, it was rabbis and prominent Torah scholars who began exploring ideas that would later form the basis of the secularization process long before Spinoza. These ideas ranged from doubting the antiquity of the world, to claiming that parts of the Torah were written after the time of Moses, pantheistic doubts, or general skepticism.

We can trace this trend back to figures like Philo of Alexandria, Elisha ben-Abuya, or even Kohelet. Over the past twelve centuries, figures such as Hiwi al-Balkhi, Solomon ibn-Gabirol, Abraham ibn-Ezra, Maimonides, Menachem Meiri, Hasdai Crescas, Elia del Medigo, Judah Leon Abravanel, Leon of Modena, and Uriel da Costa each contributed a conceptual piece to the secular puzzle. They paved the way for courageous thinkers who later dared to express ideas previously deemed heretical. In this sense, we are all somewhat secular, considering that even casual conversation in Hebrew was once seen as inappropriate.

Ironically, it could be argued that the ultra-Orthodox are the ones who have gone against the tide. In a reactionary move, they initiated a type of Jewish counter-reformation under the influence of Moses Sofer. He reinterpreted the phrase: “‘new’ [grain] is forbidden by the Torah”, driven by fear that secular Jews would disappear within two generations. However, we all know that this scenario did not come to pass.

Secular or post-theistic Judaism does not despise religion. Instead, it builds upon religious foundations while gradually shedding the divine aspect. By removing religious constraints, secular Judaism places human beings at the center, leading to a broader humanistic perspective. This gradual liberation from the past allowed for advancements in various areas, including women’s rights, racial equality, and LGBTQ+ rights. Humanism evolved from religious morality, casting off the deontological divine dimension and dismantling barriers that were no longer relevant in the face of technological and scientific progress.

Today, certain groups in Israel advocate for the restoration of sacrificial worship in a future temple. However, the ancient prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea, emphasized the importance of interpersonal relationships (“Bein Adam Le’Chavero”: between man and his fellow) over ritual sacrifice (“Bein Adam La’Makom”: between man and God). Even then, intellectuals understood that true devotion lies in caring for one another, a proto-humanism.

Today’s prophets are the seculars, often disparagingly referred to as “empty carts.” Secular Jews selectively incorporate positive aspects of Judaism while embracing moral values from various cultures to create a universal ethical system. They believe in human progress as the key to salvation. The world’s salvation will not come from a Messiah son of David, or from blindly following historical dictates. Instead, it will be achieved through the contributions of individuals like Paul Ehrlich, Albert Einstein, Rosalind Franklin, Jonas Salk, and many others who have enriched the world through their knowledge and discoveries.

Post-theistic Judaism represents a natural continuation from its predecessors, and its followers serve as a light unto the nations. Israel, positioning itself as a cyber power and a start-up nation, thrives on innovation and progress, with many advancements and breakthroughs coming from the handiwork of secular Jews. These include innovations like amniocentesis, selective solar collectors, drip irrigation, desalination technology, Medinol’s stents, Check Point’s firewall, the medicine Copaxone, USB flash drives, Mobileye, Waze, Iron Dome, Wix, and more.

The adoption of foreign cultures, known as “Hityavnut” (Hellenization), is not something to be ashamed of. There is nothing inherently despicable or terrible about incorporating non-Jewish ideas that contribute to local culture. The Jewish religion itself has integrated elements from foreign cultures throughout history. The Mishnah quotes Ben-Zoma who said, “Who is wise? One who learns from every man, as it is said: “From all who taught me have I gained understanding””. Kohelet also wrote, “A time to keep and a time to throw away”, suggesting the importance of adapting to the present by discarding traditions when necessary.

The ongoing struggle in Israel is not a choice between being a democratic state or a Jewish state, as liberal democracy itself has some Jewish roots, as mentioned before. Instead, the real controversy lies in determining whether our actions should prioritize humanity or God.

The people of Israel, through their own efforts rather than divine intervention, have returned to their ancestral land and established a sovereign state like any other nation. In Israel, the people elect their representatives without relying on divine guidance. The Knesset serves as the contemporary Sanhedrin, and the laws of the State of Israel form the new Halacha, the guiding legal framework.

If it was once believed that the secular were devoid of content, it is now clear that the secular perspective is richer than that of the religious. Secular Judaism remains open to foreign initiatives and embraces criticism. It promotes tolerance, but cannot tolerate intolerant views, as highlighted by Karl Popper in the paradox of tolerance. The secular Jewish ideology is as robust as its religious counterpart, if not more so.

About the Author
Nitzan Hamburg is a writer, Hebrew lover and medical student.