Secular Jews, moral objectivism and religious ideology - opinion

While I won’t tie my moral code to religion, it’s eye-opening to see the merits of a religious belief and to hold more respect for the ideology of religious individuals.

 WOMEN PRAY in synagogue. ‘While I won’t tie my moral code to religion, it’s eye opening to see the merits of a religious belief,’ says the writer (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
WOMEN PRAY in synagogue. ‘While I won’t tie my moral code to religion, it’s eye opening to see the merits of a religious belief,’ says the writer
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

There are two main reasons I believe it is necessary for more people like me, secular people in secular hubs, to understand the ideology of religious people

Firstly, religious people have at least some ethical beliefs that we can learn from – both to gain inspiration from their codes and to question and strengthen our own. Secondly, if a generation of secular people is taught to invalidate and disparage religious beliefs, we remain unable to effectively converse with and contest the views of those who hold them.

I grew up in such a secular and atheist-heavy world in New York City, so that even though I attended a Reform Jewish day school for about 12 years, it’s been difficult for me to understand how valuable religion can be for living a fulfilling and moral life. I’ve always been partial to viewing life through a utilitarian lens, coupled with the Golden Rule – which I recognize is, in fact, ripped out of the Bible.

However, a friend recently opened me up to seeing the value of moral objectivism

He explained how biblically based moral objectivism, as opposed to moral relativism, is necessary for a well functioning society because if morality can ebb and flow with human whims and folly, then moral codes are merely the opinions of fallible individuals. “If good people get to decide what’s moral, then bad people get to decide what’s moral.” God given values leave no space for transient morality.

 TODAY, JUDAISM’S organizing principle is shifting from Rabbinic Judaism to Zionism. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) TODAY, JUDAISM’S organizing principle is shifting from Rabbinic Judaism to Zionism. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

My friend suggested I listen to his mentor Dennis Prager, an American Jew, if I wanted to gain more insight into how religious individuals view morality. I started listening to Prager’s podcast series called Fireside Chat with Dennis Prager. I certainly don’t agree with all the ideas Prager espouses, but it’s interesting to hear his thoughts.

As with millions of Americans, Prager’s religious beliefs influence how he views humans, politics and morality. Secular people often lack a crucial understanding of the world when we look to make sense of our religious counterparts without actually seeking to understand their religious doctrine.

The week after my friend introduced me to Prager and his explanations of moral objectivism, I wound up at a Shabbat dinner with a handful of Chabad people. After the meal ended and guests were chatting into the early hours of the morning, I made my way over to an Orthodox woman who I’d spoken to momentarily before the meal started.

I asked her what it’s like to be a woman tied to such traditional moral codes. She spoke of how valued women are in Orthodox Judaism and why the different mitzvot with which men and women are tasked are not sexist, but instead empower and uplift women. 

It was powerful to hear a young woman talk about her appreciation and love for such a traditional set of values. That’s not a perspective I often hear.

I was raised to prioritize complete equality between the sexes and to be unsurprised that a man known as the “Naked Cowboy” worked just 30 minutes from me in Times Square. The values with which I was inculcated seem entirely distinct from the rules of modesty and gendered roles that abound in Orthodox Judaism.

If you view absolute equality as necessary for a healthy society, then it seems backward that women can’t read from the Torah if there’s a man around to do so, or men don’t light Shabbat candles if there’s a woman who can. However, if you view timeless morality and unwavering faith in God as your foremost values, then enforcing distinct gender roles starts to make more sense.

I go into conversations regarding morality armed with (subjective) logic, while religious people come backed by the word of God. And, from a traditional religious perspective, you can’t pick and choose which parts of God’s law to question or disobey because you are then left relying on the beliefs of humans who can constantly redefine what it means to live a moral life.

People will inevitably disagree on what is moral, which will almost necessarily lead to some amount of harm and chaos. However, do I agree that we should live by one set of morals that was decided on thousands of years ago? No. I believe that there is harm in a religious value system as well. 

So while I won’t tie my moral code to religion, it’s eye-opening to see the merits of a religious belief and to hold more respect for the ideology of religious individuals.

I urge people who have grown up in secular worlds like myself to seek out the perspectives of traditional religious people. At the very least, those conversations should be more interesting than those with people who affirm your own opinions and don’t prompt you to critically view your own logic. At their best, these conversations teach us to see goodness in other people and can challenge us to strengthen our own morality.

And it’s more pleasant going through the world seeing at least some good in others. Recognizing goodness in everyone gives us hope for more righteousness in the world. This is not to say we shouldn’t call out malice, ignorance, or evil where it exists – we certainly should. But we’ll fare better in those arguments if we understand how the other side perceives the moral foundations of life.

IF YOU want a place to start delving into at least one religious worldview, check out Lubavitchers as Citizens: A Paradox of Liberal Democracy by University of Vermont Prof. Jan Lynn Feldman. What I have read of it has been illuminating. In part, Feldman responds to secular beliefs that claim women in Orthodox Judaism are oppressed, and she provides biblical and rabbinical analysis to counter such viewpoints and expose potential drawbacks of secularism for women.

For instance, “the features of contemporary life as they impact women are difficult to ignore,” she writes. “They include a 50% divorce rate, the frequency of sexual assault, and, for those who make it into the high-paying upper strata of the economy, a corporate climate that is hostile to mothers.”

She also writes that “[religious] women claim that the family purity laws have meant that their husbands cannot regard them simply as sex objects or take access to them for granted.” Reading her work, or similar literature, should challenge any secular thinker to reevaluate how we judge religious people.

Or, as the Orthodox woman brought up at the dinner table, think about hookup culture on college campuses. College students, largely navigating a secular world with tremendous sexual freedom, often take part in casual sexual rendezvous with their peers. Research into these experiences has shown a correlation between hookup culture and a loss of self-respect among a substantial number of individuals.

This is not to say that saving yourself for marriage is necessarily better, but it’s at least worth thinking about lessons we might be able to learn from intimate practices of more traditional individuals. Now carry that thought experiment out to other parts of life as well – modesty, charity, education, etc. There’s a lot to disagree with when we view the world through other moral paradigms, but there’s also a lot to learn.

The writer, currently a summer intern at The Jerusalem Post, is a rising junior at Washington University in St. Louis and editor-in-chief of Student Life.