Max Rosenfeld: What is Secular Jewish Education?

(in Judaism in a Secular Age, Renee Kogel and Zev Katz Editors, p271 – 272. 1995)

The English word “secular” is an inadequate translation of the Yiddish word veltlich, which means this worldly as opposed to next worldly, profane as opposed to sacred, rationalism as opposed to supernaturalism. The concept “secular” also contains elements of philosophical humanism as opposed to belief in a Deity or Divine Being who governs the affairs of men. The word combination “secular-humanism” better expresses the ideas contained in the word veltlich. This view of Jewish history and tradition holds that the Jews are a people and that Judaism (their religion) is only one aspect of Jewish culture. It recognizes the historic importance of Judaism as a cementing force in the existence of the Jewish people, but does not consider this the sole reason for Jewish existence or the sole explanation for Jewish survival.

There are other views, going from certain orthodox beliefs which maintain that it is the Jewish religion alone that distinguishes the Jews from other peoples, to the extreme “sociological” view which explains Jewish existence exclusively on the basis of the “social function” of the Jews in society and predicts their disappearance when that function is no longer needed. (This “function” has to do mainly with the activities of Jews as merchants, financiers and middlemen in the development of modem industrial society.)

Then there are views which combine both concepts and regard the Jews as a “religious people” or Judaism as a civilization. Obviously, this is a topic which defies compression into two paragraphs.

The secularists among the Jews (which would include also most Zionists, especially those who pioneered and built Israel) base their views on the premise that the Jews are more than a religious group; that they constitute a world people; and that as with every modern people there is room in Jewish life for a diversity of opinion, including the secular-humanist view which does not subscribe to the tenets of religion or organized religions (congregational) affiliation.