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Is There a Tent for Secular and Cultural Jews?

Looking at Tent and the shifting landscape

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One of the more bizarre pieces of writing I’ve read in a while came courtesy of Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie–the H here is for haughty–who recently penned an editorial in the Huffington Post titled: “The Self-Delusion of Secular Jews.”

The author is the President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, which seems like a strange perch from which to be firing upon other Jews. After deigning to call the secular or cultural Jews he means to convince “good, serious, and thoughtful people,” Yoffie accuses them of struggling “with big religious questions in a way that makes no sense.” He writes:

The people to whom I refer talk about themselves as people of reason and not of faith — as champions of modernity rather than slaves to some concept of God or other outmoded patterns of belief. They pride themselves on thinking clearly and critically. They refuse to accept the dictates of the divine or the absolutes of the Jewish religion — or any religion. They are ready, they say, to throw off the oppressive power of the past. If there is truth, they tell me, they insist on their right to shape it themselves.

And yet, in their next breath, they assure me that they are “proud secular Jews.”

Beyond this troubling use of the term “they,” I feel inclined to note that I’m constantly in the midst of and in dialogue with secular and cultural Jews and I have never once heard a single one of them speak so rudely or defiantly about other peoples’ faith, especially other Jews. I know pitting anecdotal evidence against someone else’s anecdotal evidence is a losing proposition, but even if I were being hectored about my approach to Judaism as Yoffie seems perversely pleased to do, I can’t imagine saying something so grotesque about what other people find spiritually meaningful. Maybe Yoffie could get some names next time.

I also have difficulty picturing the many secular or cultural Jews I know ever priding themselves on thinking clearly and critically about anything with regard to faith. I’d be willing to guess–and offering from some experience–a sense of anomie among the Jewish-but-unattached set is easier to find than the bitter clarity that Yoffie suggests. (Voices like Yoffie’s that accuse other Jews of trying to “wring the holiness out of their Jewish identity and practice” probably aren’t bringing these people back either.)

But rather than going through the rest of Yoffie’s narrow arguments (I don’t consider myself to be either a cultural or secular Jew but I think there should be a home for them in the community), I thought to mention institutions that are doing something positive. A few months ago, I was struck by a poll in which it was determined that roughly 20% of American Jews–cultural and secular Jews among them–fit into a category that the study termed “Unaffiliated Jews.” These are a million Jews who identify as Jewish and actively seek Jewish life outside the synagogue. I wrote about it at length here.

Birthright is an established example of one such bold project that has given an irrevocably Jewish experience to hundreds of thousands of young Jews–many of whom are cultural, secular, or hardly identifying. A new example is called Tent. Aimed at North American Jews in the 20-30 age range, Tent, which is a project of the Yiddish Book Center, offers week-long free workshops that embrace rather than eschew the Jewish connection to culture. There will be three bold pilot projects this year–a comedy workshop in LA, a creative writing workshop in Amherst, and a theater workshop in New York–featuring some pretty impressive names. As Josh Lambert, a Tablet contributor and the program director, explained:

I got Tony Kushner and LaMaMa for the theater nerds; I’m getting people from SNL, The Groundlings, UCB, Comedy Central, the New Yorker’s “Shouts & Murmurs” for the comedy nerds; and I’ve got Matt Weiland, who’ll be editing the Philip Roth biography; Ira Silverberg, former agent of David Bezmozgis and Hunter S. Thompson and now at the NEA; and prize-winning workshop leaders from a couple of the top 5 MFA programs, for the creative writing folks.

What seems different and exciting to me about this project is that, like a Birthright, Judaism is the undercurrent here, a constituent fiber that makes the meeting possible. The students and mentors are Jewish, which no doubt provides a common point, but the whole enterprise doesn’t seem to insistent upon anything but its participants remaining thoughtful about their Jewishness.

If a serious approach is going to be taken in to address the shifting landscapes of American Jewry, bearing in mind that 40% of those “Unaffiliated Jews” are under the age of 35, Jews that identify differently, culturally need to be welcomed.

Earlier: Confessions of an Unaffiliated Jew
The Self-Delusion of Secular Jews [HuffPo]
Workmen’s Circle-Arbeter Study on Cultural Jews [Workmen’s Circle]

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There are secular Jewish organizations that provide education for both chldren and adults, celebrate holidays and life-cycle events, hold conferences and conduct cultural programs etc.
They include the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, the Society for Humanistic Judaism and the Workmen’s Circle.
They are not against religion, but for a creative celebration and appeciation of the humanistic aspects of Jewish culture.
Tent is a welcome addition.
Jews who wish to express and cultivate their Jewishness and their commitment to a more just society in a non-religious environment have a place to go.

thank you for calling out Rev. Yoffie on this article. when it came out, i posted it on facebook and there were many folks who were totally outraged by it, which i think was appropriate. seriously including secularism as a positive reality and not a lack of faith is a much-needed evolution in the jewish community.

Thanks for sharing this. My own synagogue is a “big tent” where the rabbi makes a point before the Amidah of directing people to the alternate version, poetry in the back of the siddur, the “words of your heart”, or just time for contemplation for atheists and agnostics. There are many people who come at first only to honor a parent’s or grandparent’s yartzeit but stay because they are welcomed as cultural or secular Jews.

Fascinating that a reform Rabbi would start calling out Jews that are less religious than he would like them to be. What exactly does he say to the Orthodox that find him to be of the same fiber and substance from a Jewishness perspective as the secular, humanistic, reconstructionist and other non Orthodox forms of Judaism. Yet another close minded religious person.

Ilene Winn-Lederer says:

Well said!

julis123 says:

Let’s be honest–Secular Jewish life outside of Israel is a non-starter


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Is There a Tent for Secular and Cultural Jews?

Looking at Tent and the shifting landscape

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