Religious Study for a Secular Audience

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the interest in the study of sacred texts among so-called secular Jews in Israel. A recent article in Ynet highlighted some of these efforts. The question is whether or not the application of such methods and contexts can be applied to the American Jewish community—especially since we know that “secular” in Israel means something very different in the United States, particularly when it comes to affiliation and engagement. Some of the folks that have been instrumental in these programs have brought their methods to the United States in an attempt to test out this hypothesis. But most of the work has been done in the context of the core community. So the people who have been involved are secular only insofar as they may not be religiously observant in the traditional sense. And because synagogue membership and attendance is different in Israel than it is in the U.S., such a marker doesn’t become particularly helpful for us either.

I wonder what the secular study of sacred texts would look like, where such study would take place, and among whom? And what would it take to attract people to it? What would be the motivation?

When Reform Judaism took hold in the 19th century in Germany and in the United States, it was, among other things, an attempt to intellectualize Judaism. One studied traditional literature even if one didn’t practice traditional rituals. It was a kind of rational spirituality. That approach has fallen out of favor among many adherents in the Reform movement in an attempt to embrace more of the core Jewish rituals. Some, like my friend and colleague Rabbi Leonard Kravitz, think that study of the rational should be complemented by traditional observance. But while he would probably not call it “spirituality,” he would also never call it “secular.”

So would secular study today take place in a library or a bookstore or home-based grassroots study groups for those interested in the genius of the ancient rabbis as evidenced in their writings, but not necessarily interested in current religious beliefs and practice? After all, it is difficult to demonstrate the relevance of these texts to our daily lives. Who would lead such a group? Would it be a person with a Ph.D. rather than rabbinical training?

In the midst of the debate over whether Jewish culture is a sufficient force to sustain us into the next generation, might we ask the same question of the secular study of traditional texts—can it sustain us into the next generation?

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