Artwork of Shtetl Houses by Avrom Yanovsky (Canada, 1911-1979)
Secular Jews – Secular Jewishness
Secular Jews include those who describe themselves as atheist, progressive, cultural and/or humanist. They consider that their Jewish identity relates to Jewish culture, history and ethics, rather than religious rituals or practices. Secular values have a long history in Jewish thought, as far back as the prophets’ opposition to empty rituals and social injustice, to Enlightenment thinkers such as Spinoza, and to early 18th century Hasidic movements which challenged rabbinic traditionalism.
In the late 19th century, in Eastern Europe and North America, an explosion of Jewish literary creativity and a passionate commitment to humanist ideologies sought to rid the world of oppression and discrimination through social movements; this motivated and transformed the traditional concept of what it meant to be a Jew. Yiddishkayt or “Jewishness” emphasized peoplehood as the distinguishing feature of Jews, rather than religious practices.
Secular Jews have influenced and made significant contributions to cultural and political life in the past century – Zionist organizations, communal fraternal organizations, and the Jewish labour/socialist movements. Secular Jewishness is the inspiration for many great works of modern Yiddish literature and theatre by luminaries such as Mendele Mokher Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz and Abraham Goldfadn. Jewish humour, folklore, folk songs, and the graphic arts are overwhelmingly influenced by a secularist approach to Jewishness.
In Secular Jewishness, long-standing Jewish traditions are drawn upon for their beauty, depth, and humanist thought and are often adapted to be relevant to contemporary national and international conditions. Secular Jewishness defines Jewish identity as inclusively as possible regarding one’s heritage.
Secular Jewishness emphasizes the social justice element of our tradition, the respect for working people and the right of all people to dignity and self-determination. Secular Jews are often engaged in movements seeking social justice, peace and community responsibility in order to make the world a better place.