Judaism is a religion in a very different sense than Christianity. Christianity is a religion in an orthodox (correct belief) sense of a faith commitment – faith in God and in Jesus as the messiah. There are in Christianity different streams (orthodox, catholic and protestant) and many different approaches within each stream, but what defines one as a Christian is the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah. Christianity is a community of believers, and one who lacks the fundamental faith commitment in Jesus as the messiah is not a true Christian even if born of Christian parents. That is, in principle there can be no such thing as a secular Christian.
By contrast, traditional Judaism is a religion not in the sense of a faith commitment but in the orthoprax (correct practice) sense of a culture and way of life of the Jewish people – what defines one as a Jew is not faith in God nor observance of a traditional lifestyle of law and ritual practice, and among the Jewish people there are those who define themselves as religious and those who define themselves as secular. There are in Judaism different streams (orthodox, conservative, reconstructionist, reform and secular) and different approaches within each stream, but what defines one as a Jew is a legal standard of being born to a Jewish mother or having converted – and what unites Jews is not a faith commitment, or a traditional lifestyle of law and ritual practice, but being part of a people with a shared history, language, homeland and culture or way of life.
Thus, it follows from the fact that Judaism is a way of life of the Jewish people that in principle there can be such a thing as a secular Jew – who is not only a member of the Jewish people either by birth or by conversion, but who is loyal to the Jewish people and identifies with the larger Jewish culture. Even more, such a secular Jew who is not observant of Jewish law or traditional ritual practice, and may not believe in the existence of God at all, may nonetheless be defined as religious. The term religious does not appear one time in the ancient Jewish tradition – not in the Hebrew Bible and not in the Talmudic literature (the foundation of the Jewish rabbinic tradition). The modern Hebrew term religious appears in several books of the Bible, but it is used in the sense of law and not in the modern sense of religion.
The Hebrew Bible is absent of any theological dogma and absent of systematic philosophy. The essence of religion in the Biblical conception, which is orthoprax (correct deeds) and not orthodox (correct belief), is morality as reflected in the verse (Deuteronomy 6, 18) – “And you shall do that which is right (righteous) and good in the eyes of the Lord”. The emphasis in the verse, characteristic of the Bible, is an orthoprax emphasis upon doing rather than believing, and upon doing in a moral sense of righteousness and goodness. The words “right and good” reveal not only an emphasis upon morality above ritual (as reflected in the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible), but a meta-Halachic (non-legal), moral demand of proper behavior above and beyond the fulfillment of commandments in a legal sense. Indeed, the previous verse demands observance of commandments in a legal sense – “You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and His testimonies and His statutes, which He has commanded you” (Deuteronomy 6, 17). The demand to do “that which is right and good in the eyes of the Lord” is then a general moral demand beyond the observance of specific commandments. In the Biblical conception of religion, the essence of religion is not law or ritual practice but morality.
The Biblical name of the Jewish people, Israel, in Hebrew contains the words righteous (the very same word righteous as in the verse “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord”) and the word God, and if divided in the middle means righteous of God – and, the people Israel then are to be a people devoted to righteousness and right living as the essence of religion. Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish people is singled out as a person who “will keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice” (Genesis 18, 19). So, in the Biblical conception a moral atheist would be seen not as a heretic (as the term heretic does not exist in the Bible) but by virtue of living a moral life as doing “that which is right and good in the eyes of God” thereby fulfilling the essence of religion.
Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, the two greatest of the Talmudic rabbis, faithful to the Biblical conception formulated the essence of Judaism as moral decency. Hillel argued that the essence of Judaism is the moral principle “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others” and Rabbi Akiva cited as the essence of Judaism the Biblical verse (Leviticus 19, 18) “love your neighbor as yourself”. It is simply shocking that their formulations are completely secular and anti-theological in omitting God. Hillel does not even cite a verse from the Bible in arguing that the essence of Judaism is moral decency simply on the basis of one’s own conscience and experience – “what is hateful unto you do not do unto others”. Even more striking, Rabbi Akiva omits the continuation of the Biblical verse “love your neighbor as yourself” that he cites as the essence of Judaism, which is “I am the Lord”. Rabbi Akiva, also holds that “tradition is a fence for the Torah (Judaism)”, meaning that tradition (law and ritual practice) is something that may help in living a moral life, but it is not of the essence of Torah (Judaism). I emphasize that in the conceptions of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, faithful to the Biblical conception, the essence of Judaism is not faith, and not law or ritual practice, but simple moral decency.
Regarding a secular Jew who is not observant of Jewish law or traditional ritual practice, and may not believe in the existence of God at all – if such a secular Jew lives a moral life he or she may be defined as religious in fulfilling the essence of a Jewish religious life according to the teachings of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva. By contrast, according to the teachings of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, a Jew who defines himself or herself as religious, believes in the existence of God, and is observant of Jewish law and traditional ritual practice, but who is an immoral person, is not truly religious in missing the essence of a religious life. Such a secular, anti-theological conception of religion of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva cannot be contemplated within Christianity because the essence of Christianity as a religion is not a way of life but a faith commitment – and without faith in God as well as faith in Jesus as the messiah one cannot be a true Christian and a truly religious person.
As an influence of Christianity in the western world, there is a tendency to think of the essence of religion as faith and ritual (flowing from a faith commitment). Unfortunately (in my eyes), this influence of Christianity is widespread within Judaism as well. Judaism (though having introduced the world to monotheism, and though there is a tremendous emphasis upon law and ritual practice within a traditional Jewish life) is not a faith commitment but a way of life of the Jewish people. The essence of our way of life as a people in the Biblical conception, and in the conceptions of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, is moral decency – and, thus, it follows that a good Jew is a Jew who identifies with his or her people and heritage in being devoted to a life of moral decency.
I want to emphasize that identification with one’s people and heritage is an integral element of Judaism as a religion, and thus an integral element of what it means to be a good Jew – and, we learn this from the Haggadah of Passover regarding the wicked son:
What does the wicked one say? What is this service to you? He says to you, and not to him. By excluding himself from the community (the people Israel), he denies a fundamental principle (the rabbinic term for heresy).
According to the Haggadah, the wicked son is considered a heretic – strikingly, not due to improper theological belief and not because he is not observant of a traditional lifestyle of law and ritual practice. Rather, the wicked son himself in asking “what is this service to you?” excludes himself from the Jewish people – and, he thus has no sense of Jewish identity. The heresy and wickedness of the wicked son is not in an orthodox sense of denying a theological principle such as not believing in the existence of God but in an orthoprax sense of not identifying with his people and heritage.
Note – I am the author of a recently published book on the nature of the Hebrew Bible and Biblical theology (and the nature of Biblical faith), Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham.