February 22, 2001
Shevat 29, 5761

Taking secular seriously

h-oh. My world-view is in trouble again.
The challenge this time? The secular Judaism movement, with its seemingly-contradictory claim: atheistic spirituality in a Jewish cultural setting. I've always agreed with Elie Wiesel that "the Jew may love G-d or fight with G-d; he may not ignore G-d," and I had my own reasons to be suspicious. Far from being a new sun on the Jewish horizon, this modern movement actually descends from the Communist Judaism of my paternal zaide.
Pitted against my mother's Conservative background, his legacy made religion an uneasy subject in our home. The ironic result of my father's universalistic upbringing was a hollow "Jews vs. the world" cynicism, and while my mother taught us liberal Judaism, he skipped shul and spouted anti-Christian rhetoric.
Struggling to define Judaism as more than just "not-Christianity," I became a baalat tshuvah (returnee to traditional practice), clucking over the hypocrisy of the non-Orthodox, those who wouldn't act on their Jewish convictions. But gradually, I began to realize that their contribution mattered as much as mine. My liberal background resurfaced, and with dialogue and study, my Jewish world expanded.
But not completely. I still saw myself as part of, if not a united Orthodoxy, then an elite of religious Jews, an "us" firmly opposed to "them" - apathetic, secular Jews. At least, until recently, when I could no longer ignore these new people spelling "secular" with a capital "S" and saying it like they really mean it.
But had the movement really changed? Way back when, my dad attended a Communist "cheder" where he learned... well, a little more than his sister,

who, given the choice of Jewish school or ballet, picked ballet. What little girl wouldn't?
Today's leaders, though, are adamant that "secular" means more than just bagels-and-lox Judaism. Eva Goldfinger, spiritual leader of Toronto's Oraynu Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, insists that the secular emphasis on personal responsibility can lead to a stronger, more committed Judaism.
"Never mind what your parents believed in," she counsels those seeking to build a Jewish lifestyle. "What elements are really vital for you?" Rededication to adult Jewish practice offers new spiritual energy to many estranged Jews.
Where secular organizations of the past, like my dad's "Jewish school," sought to abandon Jewish observance, today's movement has done an about-face. Holidays, baby namings and B'nai Mitzvah celebrations are now celebrated with pride. There is a reverence for ritual here which might have surprised the old-timers.
Almost painfully, I'm forced to admit that I can't see the "us and them" anymore. Secular Jews value Judaism and they're passing it on to their kids. And so, I have had to learn a new phrase: "serious Jews."
Secular Jews don't consider themselves religious, but, like the rest of us, they wrestle with the ancient responsibility of our heritage. And the energetic way they're doing it speaks volumes about how the movement has changed since my zaide's day.
There have been some changes in my parents' home, too, in recent years. Saying Kaddish for his parents, my father taught himself Hebrew; at age 57, he visited Israel for the first time. Like the movement that raised him, he is growing up now, becoming a serious Jew - a Jew-in-progress - which is, in the end, all any one of us can say.
Jennifer Paquette is a writer in Toronto..

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