Shana tova, to believers and nonbelievers alike.

Photograph: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

This Rosh Hashana, Celebrate Culture and Kinship

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The Jewish New Year -- 5777, by the Hebrew calendar -- is almost upon us. As in years past, many Jews will attend synagogue faithfully. The majority of U.S. Jews, however, will mark these events without celebration or pious reflection. This is indeed a huge change from 200 years ago, when many (if not most) Jews would be celebrating these and all other Jewish holidays in accordance with religious doctrines.

What has changed? In a word, Judaism has gotten more secular. Beginning with Spinoza in the 17th century, and continuing with the Enlightenment and the splintering of Orthodox Judaism into many different forms -- Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Secular -- Judaism has changed completely. These changes are the reason why today’s religious Judaism is so diverse, and why the rise of Judaism as a culture, or secular Judaism, has taken place.

Since the Jewish New Year is a good time to review how one’s life changed, I’m moved to examine my own shift. I was born in Berlin in 1928 and raised Modern Orthodox. Then came Kristallnacht, in November 1938; years of refugee status; changes in schools; and the Holocaust. My first cousin survived Auschwitz, and on her recovering visit to my parents’ apartment, she shared the story of what she had endured. That story left an indelible mark on me. It turned me away from religion -- for good. 

But it didn’t turn me away from Judaism. I still felt Jewish, but without the religion. And I remained that way for years as I raised a family and built a business. In fact, I did not take time out to investigate what Judaism might mean to a nonreligious person until I was over 50. By then, I felt compelled to learn about anti-Semitism, which had so influenced my life. Slowly, my Jewish horizons broadened as my natural curiosity was piqued.

What I found was a revelation. Over the next 20 years, I buried my head in a completely new literature. I learned; I listened; I attended lectures; I read authors I had only heard of but had never been allowed to read, including Spinoza. My entree into this world of secular Jewish learning was combined with the study of anti-Semitism, and I had the good fortune of befriending one of the world’s greatest experts, Yehuda Bauer, who also happened to be the head of something I had never heard of -- an Israeli movement in secular Judaism.

My view of Judaism changed totally. And I raise this now for a specific reason. In the Diaspora, particularly the U.S., the majority of Jews are nonreligious, according to a host of recent demographic surveys. Some of those Jews will indeed attend synagogue on the upcoming High Holidays, but their once-a-year affiliation with Judaism is based on culture, kinship, fondness for tradition, and perhaps a sense of obligation -- not a commitment to Halakha (Jewish law).

I would argue that this is not a bad thing. Culture, kinship and Jewish feeling may be the common denominators across the Jewish world. Interestingly, the Israeli Mamlachti state school system has begun teaching Judaism from a cultural point of view. In high schools, Jewish philosophy courses are being taught, while in elementary schools, students learn Israeli Jewish culture. This is truly a significant change in a country whose Jewish population now exceeds the United States’.

I have heard from too many modern Jews that the High Holidays are marked by ambivalence and even guilt -- an annual dip into formalized religion, something that has to be done to affirm one’s heritage. This need not be the case. Secular Judaism is as worthy of celebration as its more traditional counterpart.

So let me take this opportunity to wish all Jews a happy New Year, whether they will be attending High Holiday ceremonies or not. In case you’re wondering, yes, I will be there -- not worrying about the Book of Life, but celebrating in my 89th year the life we have, and marking the passage of another fortunate year which demonstrates Jewish continuity more and more from a cultural, rather than religious, base. 

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To contact the editor responsible for this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net