Bridging the Secular/Religious Divide in Ourselves and the World

Posted on Sep 18, 2013

The Yom Kippur liturgy holds out a special welcome, which I want to reinforce, to the tens of thousands of Jews who will attend High Holiday services this year, and perhaps fast all or part of the day despite complex and ambivalent feelings about religion and uncertainty or outright skepticism about belief in God. If you are among them, let me urge you not to be put off from fully embracing the opportunity this day affords by the fact that the liturgy seems to assume a year-round regimen of practice in which you may not engage, and makes assumptions about life and death that you may not share. Let me confess that one of the most important moments to me in the history of modern Jewish thought—my scholarly field of expertise—is the one in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book Man is Not Alone, when Heschel follows a gorgeous and moving page describing personal religious experience of God with a chapter titled in boldface headline, “Doubt.”

I want to build on that juxtaposition of faith and doubt for the next few moments, in the hope of helping all of us take maximum advantage of the 24 hours ahead. I want to challenge the assumption that the purpose of Yom Kippur is to get us to be morereligious, in the sense in which that word is ordinarily used these days—religious as opposed to secular. In my view, we are not meant to go forth from this hall at the end of Ne‘ilah and forswear life in the secular world in favor of a putative religious existence in some other realm. Most of us live our lives in the secular world, and have no intention of abandoning it. We treasure science and technology; culture and the arts; the free exchange of ideas; the fabric of daily existence with family and friends that we share with other participants in modern times. If I thought that the purpose of Judaism, and so of Yom Kippur, was to get me to leave that way of life behind—as some forms of Judaism maintain—then my position on Judaism would bear the same title as that chapter in Heschel’s book: doubt.

Thank goodness the very opposite is the case. The Judaism I have been taught all my life—the JUDAISM of the Bible and the Rabbis—has no interest in the religious/secular dichotomy. Jewish tradition has never fit comfortably inside the notion of religion. Fasting and prayer are two among many hundreds of commandments meant to guide Jews to a good life and a better world. The Hebrew Bible includes lengthy legislation and narrative concerning politics, economics, social justice, and the arts; profound philosophical ruminations and moral insights; one of the greatest love poems ever written; and bloodcurdling tales about kings and their intrigues that highlight the limits, use, and abuse of power. Major sections of the Talmud and subsequent legal codes likewise cannot be contained inside any narrow definition of religion. They remind us that the Torah does not command Jews to be religious. It commands us to be holy, to pursue justice, to walk humbly with our God. That requires action outside the sanctuary more than inside it; seven days a week, and not just one.

Jews uncomfortable with the call to religion sense correctly that the language of religious versus secular is false to critical components of their deepest commitments, and to some of what is most valuable in their personhood. The term secular was originally not meant to refer to individual consciousness or belief at all, but rather to the “removal of territory or property from the control of ecclesiastical authorities”—I quote from sociologist Peter Berger—and then, by extension, came to mean “the liberation of modern man from religious tutelage.” Specifically, in the West, it has meant the rejection of Christian domination of major areas of society, politics, and culture. This is the sense that, by analogy, has led Israeli society, politics, culture, and individuals to be divided rather starkly between hilonim and dati’im (secularists and religious persons), the latter meaning Orthodox Jews, and especially Haredim, who reject the legitimacy of the secular world and of the State of Israel.

I don’t think this division is terribly helpful when applied to individuals, in Israel or anywhere else for that matter. In the interest of maximizing our embrace of teshuvahtefillah, and tzedakah this Yom Kippur, I urge us all to reject that division in ourselves. Whenever I hear Israelis self-identify as religious or secular, I think of a cousin who survived the Holocaust by fleeing to Siberia, returned to Poland right after the war to rescue hidden Jewish children, smuggled them into Palestine despite the British blockade, helped build a kibbutz with his bare hands, and fought in three of Israel’s wars. Twentieth-century Jewish history, mythic in its power and meaning, was imprinted on every fiber of his being and touched every pore of his skin. Does the word secular capture what is most essential about this man, or countless other Israelis—or North American Jews—or members of other communities and traditions? I think not.

But wait, you might say: doesn’t it all come down to whether or not a person believes in God? The trouble with that criterion is that the minute you examine it, you have to ask what exactly a person does or does not believe in when using that word God? Whose God, which God? The one with the long white beard and the deep voice that Judaism has considered idolatrous for over three millennia when it is taken to be more than one among multiple images? The God who declares, in a daring Aggadah in the Talmud, “If Jews stop believing in Me, may they continue to observe My Torah?” The God in the famous Jewish joke whose existence a group of Jews are debating vociferously all afternoon until one of them announces that the debate has to stop for a few moments because it is time to daven Minhah? The God of Maimonides? Of Spinoza? The one of whom a famous hymn in our siddur says, “I will tell of Your glory though I have not seen You, I will say what You are like, and give You names, but I have not known You . . . Your prophets talked about You not as You actually are . . . imagining You from afar according to Your deeds”? This is the God whose path for humanity, according to the Torah, is not in heaven, not across the sea, but “very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to do it” (Deut. 30:14).

I hope you agree with me that this matter, on this day, in this place, is not esoteric or academic—not in the least what Heschel dismissed as mere theology. We don’t become religious by reflecting upon it, and neither do we cease to be secular. Rather it bears directly on the changes you and I will try to make in our lives with the help of the liturgy we have begun to step inside with the Kol Nidrei prayer. I want to drive the point home with the help of a book I reread this summer for the first time in decades, one of the greatest books I have ever read or ever will read, Moby Dick. Shall we call Herman Melville or his narrator Ishmael religious as opposed to secular because an early chapter recounts a sermon on Jonah in the belly of the whale given in a Nantucket church, or because the characters and cadences of the Bible are pervasive in Moby Dickfrom start to finish? Maybe so. It would, without doubt, diminish Melville—and prevent us from grasping what is at stake in Ahab’s epic battle with the white whale—were we to label either Melville or Ahab as (merely) secular. Melville is not so much religious as he is biblical—indeed, prophetic—in his call to the serious life. We too will read Jonah in synagogue tomorrow afternoon, of course, but what really connects Moby Dick closely to our liturgy, our tradition, and our teshuvah goes much deeper.

Let’s begin with the parallels between the Torah’s attention to details of purity and sacrifice and Melville’s near-obsessive insistence that we know everything there is to be known about whales and the industry of whaling. It’s not a matter of religion in either case, I think, but of facing up to what is involved in killing fellow creatures of God so that we might live, achieve forgiveness, eat, clothe ourselves, and have light in our dwellings. Melville, like Heschel and the psalmist, wants us to take the broadest possible view of the human situation—to take in the vastness of the sea, the wonders of physiology and anatomy, the diversity of human beings, the ineffable realm that lies beyond even the most daring reaches of language. Moby Dick, like Yom Kippur, forces us to confront our own mortality and the less-than-noble aspects of ourselves; to think about God in the context of everything we know and have experienced, rather than as a catechism or set of religious beliefs. Perhaps most crucial to the work of teshuvahMoby Dick gets us to see through surface differences among human beings to underlying commonalties and see past the fact of sin to the facts of virtue and possibility.

Melville, like the Yom Kippur liturgy, transports us to these realizations over many pages. There is a rhythm to both enterprises. Ishmael at the start of the novel reaches a sort of minimalist tolerance for his new friend Queequeg, a tattooed pagan who is rumored to be a cannibal. “The man’s a human being just as I am; he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better [to share a room and a bed] with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian (ad loc.).” Ishmael soon goes one step deeper to the realization that “You cannot hide the soul. Through all his unearthly tattooings, I thought I saw the traces of a simple honest heart.” He then persuades the owners of the Pequod to hire Queequeg for the voyage—even though he is not a Christian—by pronouncing him a “borne member of the First Congregational church—the great and everlasting First Congregation of this whole worshipping world; we all belong to that; only some of us cherish some queer crotchets nowadays touching the grand belief; in that we all join hands.” This is a very Jewish message, a very Yom Kippur message.

We are all shipmates on the sea of life, all mortal, all sinners, all capable of forgiving our fellows and worthy of being forgiven by them. Melville’s rhetoric soars to the notion that “man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes (ad loc.).” Rather than advertising the blemish or feeling superiority. We are all commanded to be malbish arumim (clothiers of the needy). The “august dignity” he speaks of is found in every person. “Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God Himself! The great God absolute! The center and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence! Our divine equality!”

In the very next paragraph, Melville turns to God in prayer and asks God to prove him right in this belief in humanity. “Against all mortal critics hear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God! (ad loc.)” We are going to turn to God in prayer, and to one another, a lot in the next 24 hours. I hope we do it with similar generosity of heart and openness of spirit.

To help us with that task, the Rabbis arranged that tomorrow morning we encounter again the stirring words of Isaiah that remind us—at the very center of the Yom Kippur service, in the midst of fasting and prayer—that both of these are means and not ends. “This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness . . . and let the oppressed go free.” This message has still broader significance, I would submit: religious and secularare not easily distinguishable for anyone who heeds Isaiah’s call. The work of teshuvah, tzedakah, and even of tefillah takes place for the most part outside the synagogue. God calls to us through prophets like Isaiah and Melville, and Yom Kippur calls to us from a place deep inside ourselves. What we ordinarily call faith or belief is not what is at stake. We are. The world awaits our response.

May each of us provide that response to the best of our ability. May all of us be sealed in the Book of Life.