A secular Jew is no less Jewish than any other

Promise of truly pluralistic society hinges on the secular community’s success in strengthening its Jewish identity.

Earlier this year, the Central Bureau of Statistics published results from its annual social survey for 2009. According to the survey, the Jewish population here is composed of 8 percent haredi, 12% Orthodox, 13% traditional- Orthodox, 25% traditional-secular and 42% secular.
Participants were asked several questions about any religious leanings and 21% responded that, compared with previous years, they feel more “strengthened,” to some degree or another.
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The newspaper headlines screamed: “21% have strengthened in their religion.”
The “strengthened” are the ones who became more Orthodox, more “Jewish,” or in Hebrew, hozer b’tshuva, which literally refers to a return to the answer. They are strengthened and now have the answers. The concept “strengthened” immediately brands the other side as “weak.”
The non-Orthodox are weak, “Jewish-lite.” If the Orthodox have the answers, then the secular only have questions.
Orthodoxy’s source of strength stems from its monopoly on things like marriage, conversions, burials, synagogues and so on, and its firm affiliation with the state, as determined by David Ben-Gurion in his “status quo” letter in 1947. The “weakness” of the secular Jews has been their inability to shake this monopoly and accept alternative, viable modes of Jewish expression.
OVER THE years, an antipathy to Orthodox religious coercion has created antagonism toward anything Jewish, which has deterred Jews from connecting to their own culture and tradition.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, a fierce argument has raged among the founders of Zionism concerning the manner in which Judaism should be preserved and/or renewed. Y.H. Brenner ends his influential essay “Al Hizion Hashmad” with: “We, the living minority of the Jewish people... whether we fast on Yom Kippur or eat milk with meat... we do not cease to see ourselves as Jews, to live Jewish lives, to work in Jewish ways, speak our Jewish language, to be spiritually sustained by our Jewish literature, work towards a free Jewish national culture, defend our national honor and fight for our existence in every way.”
Secular Jews, the source of the Zionist enterprise’s strength, remain the active majority and the carrier of the “burden of mitzvot” of the Jewish state. This community needs to be strengthened – not by becoming more observant of Halacha but by becoming more conscious of its Judaism. It needs to study more Torah, find new meaning in Jewish holidays, adapt a Jewish lifestyle relevant to today’s reality. It needs to find a way to connect new immigrants and Jewish communities worldwide to the place that was and continues to be the center of the Jewish world, to continue to foster the creation of a liberal and moderate Jewish culture.
The promise of a truly pluralistic society, one that reflects the richness of a diverse Jewish population, hinges on the secular community’s success in strengthening its Jewish identity, in recognizing the strength in asking questions.
As in any leadership process, the most important aspect is self-image. A secular Jew is no less Jewish than any other. We need to strengthen secular public education, establish more secular yeshivot, be proud of our Zionist heritage. In the words of our national anthem, we must strive to be “a free nation in its own land... our hope is not lost.”
The writer is CEO of The Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture.