Aligning Judaism with the values of modernity

Aligning Judaism with the values of modernity

Judaism for Everyone…without Dogma book cover
Judaism for Everyone…without Dogma book cover

Editor’s note: What does it mean to be Jewish in a time of freedom, not only from persecution but from authority itself? The International Federation for Secular & Humanistic Judaism — whose president, Marvin A. Rosenblum, lives in Chester — promotes a vibrant Jewish culture based on reason and humanistic values.

Recently, the IFSHJ has published Judaism for Everyone…without Dogma, by Brazilian sociologist Bernardo Sorj. In this excerpt, Sorj suggests how Judaism has survived by “reinventing itself by adapting to new circumstances and cultural change.” Sorj has a degree in Jewish history from the University of Haifa and a PhD in sociology from the University of Manchester.

In modernity, the history of Judaism reflects a never-ending effort (because there are no eternal answers) to reinterpret Judaism so it remains relevant and responsive to the challenges of a perpetually changing culture. The Conservative and Reform movements, Reconstructionism, Zionism, the Bund — all were attempts to renew Judaism and align it with the values of modernity. Each one had tremendous merit, but they increasingly appear incapable of offering a meaningful framework for those who define themselves as secular, cultural, or humanistic Jews, a group representing perhaps the largest minority within Judaism.

Often, Jewish identity is experienced as a wellspring of positive feelings, allowing us to share in a community steeped in values and solidarity; just as often, as a rigid system that excludes others, shackled to an outdated worldview. We live in a time when each individual must confront the dilemma of what to do with Jewish identity. When Judaism is experienced as a prison, we may strive to free ourselves from tradition or we may strive to free the tradition itself.

Judaism for Everyone…without Dogma argues that we must begin by recognizing that Judaism has been individualized; there is no longer a single system of canonical answers defining what it means or does not mean to be Jewish. In this regard, the book above all promotes a pluralistic view of Judaism. Just as each denomination — even those with whom we don’t agree — has something to contribute to the richness of Judaism, each individual is personally plural and must determine, moment by moment, how to synthesize what Judaism means to him or her.

From this perspective, the book undertakes a rereading of Jewish history and the challenges facing Judaism today, an interpretation guided by a humanistic vision, by values that seek to advance our common humanity: identification and solidarity with the Jewish community but also with all who are oppressed and persecuted; supporting dialogue based on rationality but also awareness that feelings and emotions are an inherent part of the human condition.

This is not the rationalistic humanism of previous generations, who too optimistically believed that reason was a linear path and humanity was progressing rapidly toward universal values. On the contrary, every individual in each generation must live with conflicting values and several group identities, which in practice cannot always be reconciled, and must accept that human condition includes the search for transcendence, which involves nonrational elements. Above all, it means acknowledging that universal values cannot be constructed theoretically once and for all; it is a long road marked by mishaps, leading to a place we may never reach, yet for the humanist it is the only road to take. The alternative is to withdraw into a fundamentalist, xenophobic outlook or else a superficial multiculturalism that has abandoned any effort to create a better world.

Rethinking Judaism from this perspective means abandoning several interpretations of Jewish history and practice that have impregnated Jewish life for two millennia — including the renewal movements mentioned above. In particular, the book emphasizes the need to value the experience of life in the Diaspora as a form of personal and collective enrichment, not a divine curse; the need to confront both anti-Semitism and the prejudices that the Jewish community still holds against non-Jews that impoverishes our social relations; and above all the need to dissociate Judaism from biological origin, fully accepting mixed marriages, their children, and all who identify with Judaism.

North American and Israeli Judaism tend to remember other Jewish communities only in cases of anti-Semitism, treating them in institutional practice as spaces to be culturally colonized. As a work written in Brazil, a place removed from the United States and Israel, the major centers of Jewish life, this book warns against the impoverishment caused by the de-Diasporization of Judaism, reminding us of the need to remember the rich contribution that every national Jewish community has to offer to a culture that has always been both local and global.

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