THE PRACTICE OF SECULAR JUDAISM- Social Erasure of Secular Judaism in Pew Institute Research


In this paper I shall explore the following: 1) The secular humanistic Jewish congregant. 2) The secular Jew with no synagogue affiliation. 3) The secular cyber Jew.

One of the components, which have given sustainability to diaspora Jews, is a facet of Jewry that perhaps deserves greater recognition. It is secular Judaism.

Secular Judaism contributes to the success of keeping Judaism alive, particularly here in the U.S.

The Pew Institute is the prevailing provider for information, which gives polling analysis on many topics, including religion.

If the Pew study is to be used as a measuring device to determine the status of American Jewry, then when we examine their conclusions, we should not be disheartened by the percentages of religious Jews. Instead, we should look at the 30% quantification of “no-denomination” and the 6% of “other” as a distinction that 36% of Jews are still Jews. [1]

The delineation that they are non-religious does not mean they are not Jews. It means the non-religious or non-affiliates are being viewed in the context of not practicing, thus creating a notion in the Jewish community that they are losing Jews.

My paper aims to categorically reject the over-used terminology of “non-affiliate” to be reconstituted as “secular.” This distinction is critical to bridging gaps within Judaism. It is the difference between the practice of secular Judaism and the apathy of Judaism. Apathy is defined as the “lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern.” Apathy is the only threat to American Jewry, not being a non-affiliate or non-religious. I will demonstrate that secular Judaism is not only an important branch of Judaism, but it may very well be the most important component to this very complex and intricate concept called Judaism.

I shall additionally create a comprehensive and distinct picture of secular Judaism that lives in the minds of Jews, but it is not being cultivated as a form of Jewish practice, much in the same way we envision religious practice. By harnessing the ideals behind secular Judaism we can provoke a Judaism that is as ancient as the Tanakh itself. If we can awaken the sleeping secular Jew, we can reinvigorate the global Jewish community by understanding and demonstrating how the practice of secular Judaism can and should be embraced by all Jews. By recognizing the value of secular Judaism, Jewish leaders can elevate that 36% into a new category that is rightfully quantified in future Pew studies as “secular Jews.”


            It is no secret that religious Jews have spent years working on how to connect with Jews who no longer attend a synagogue. There are numerous organizations, programs, activities, trips and non-religious delights crafted to entice the non-religious Jew, back into the fold. The error in this ideology is that although a Jew may be willing to go on a sponsored trip to Israel or see a play that their nephew is in at their synagogue; it does not inspire the Jew to become an active Jew- at least active in the context of synagogue life. What about Jewish life? What are the attributes of an active Jew?

If we can remain in the context of secular Jews, then we must break down what it would mean to practice secular Judaism. The Pew Institute knows the term secular Jew, but does not understand what it means.

Defining Secular Judaism’s Origins

            Secular Judaism can be described as Judaism that is non-religious. Judaism infact was not always a religion. We know that if we examine the trajectory of ancient Hebrews, through Israelite culture, we do not discover the religion of Judaism until Second Temple Period, as a response to the diaspora. Prior to this era, this group was an ethno-centric, ancient, cultic peoplehood.

Secular Judaism is embodied by the fact that it has its own language, history, culture, food, music, festivals, customs and literature. If you strip away the religion of Judaism, you have strong pillars that are grounded in traditions that can stand on their own. Modernity has given Judaism the grand contribution to expand beyond the description of religion. Today exists even broader expressions of Judaism. This would include poetry, film, art and politics.

We know that if we read biblical texts, such as Esther, Job and Song of Songs, we can see that G-d is downplayed or practically non-existent. [2]

According to David Biale:

“The secular tradition is anchored in the Jewish religious tradition, not                               just as a rejection of it, but as a dialectical working out of some of its                                 ideas, even some of its impulses, even if some of its impulses were not                                 entirely conscious to the Jewish religious tradition. Therefore, this                                          Jewish secular tradition is actually an integral part of the Jewish                                          tradition as a whole. It is a part of it, it is not a completely separate                          entity defined only by negation. “ [3]


Secular lies somewhere between holy and profane. It is a position in the middle. Jewish tradition itself opens the possibility that secularism is neither negative nor polluted- neither holy nor profane. Judaism does not reject an earthly world for a heavenly world like Christianity. [4] It is clearly rooted in great truth and even in great Jewish literature.                                                                                                                   The Hebrew word for a secular Jews is חילונים. Hilonim is first used in the Midrash, contained in the rather famous story about the Oven of Akhnai as well as discussions on the holy versus the profane. In the Oven of Akhnai, Kosher or not, all the Rabbis say it is unclean and one Rabbi Eliezer says it is clean. He is the only one with this position and asserts- the Torah is not in the heavens, it is here on earth. He proceeds deeper and claims that “we” will decide what it means. He believes God has endorsed this concept that it is not in the heavens. (Deuteronomy 30:11,12):

For this commandment, which I command you this day,

                        is not concealed from you, nor is it far away. It is not in

                        heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven

                        for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can

                        fulfill it?” [5]


I find this assertion rather rebellious towards the rabbinate itself. The rabbinate uses this to serve a purpose of human autonomy. The story demonstrates an impulse or mentality that there is autonomy from G-d. For our purpose, this is a possibility to exploit a later modern secular philosophy. The story also functions not to humiliate the person in the minority. [6]

Biale asserts that secular Judaism is an outgrowth of religious Judaism. The change is a dialectical outgrowth rooted firmly in tradition, which took the institutionalization of Judaism and transformed it into an ethical vocation. If we

understand Biale’s assertion, then we can say that Jewish identity is no longer a matter of destiny; it is a matter of personal choice. [7]

The Pew Institute does not ask specific and relevant questions, targeting secular Jews. If they did we could learn more. There should be current research and focus on a deliberate campaign that identifies secular Jews. What would American Jewry do with that information? Biale also points out the conundrum of secular Judaism.

It is not a movement, at least not anymore. Secular Zionism, and Bundism- particularly among Eastern Europeans of the late 19th and 20th centuries- had a political climate that was ripe for such activities and unified coalitions. The conditions that promulgated this type of activism and ideology no longer exist in today’s culture. So if secularism in a “movement” fashion is no longer alive, what is it?

Who Is a Secular Jew?

We know that the Talmud says if one’s mother is Jewish, then one is Jewish. We also know in Reform Judaism that patrilineal Judaism is accepted, thus the Torah itself marks the Jewish bloodline through patrilineal descent. We know that sectarianism exists within Judaism and we know that Jews can be born into one sect and perhaps move to another. If secular Judaism is not a sect, is one automatically secular if they are not members of a synagogue? I will assert that even if one is born Jewish, yet has no exposure to Jewish history, tradition or activity, including the absence of religious life, they are not much of a secular Jew. In order to qualify a Jew as secular- would they not have to engage in something specifically Jewish in nature that is not religious? At some point, Jewish exposure has to occur in the life of the Jew. I will posit that a secular Jew has experienced Judaism at some point in their life (perhaps childhood) and they built a construct of a Jewish identity through their own experiences outside religious participation.

What Does Secular Jewish Practice Look Like?

            We could go easy on ourselves and use a Maimonidean negative theory to describe a secular Jew, by defining what he or she is not. However, it is the distinguishment of activities and behaviors that lend identity to the secular Jew. This provides a broad spectrum of secular Jewish archetypes. We have the secular Jew who may never step foot in a synagogue, but they are a member of AIPAC. They may not pray or read Torah, they may not keep Shabbat, but they may celebrate Hanukkah.

What about the secular Jewish organizations such as B’nai B’rith? A couple may opt to never send their child to a Jewish summer camp, but take advantage of a free trip to Israel for their teenager paid by the Jewish Federation. The teenager may not return back to the U.S. ready for synagogue membership, but they will have seen Israel and experienced that it is a geographical place, not simply a story out of a book for the Jewish people.

A Mitzvah is a Mitzvah, Right?

At the beginning of my essay I referred to the practice of secular Judaism. If the Pew institute could cloak practice in the performance of a mitzvah, wouldn’t the secular

Jew who visits a sick relative be demonstrating Judaism itself? Is there a distinction between a secular Jewish mitzvah and a religious mitzvah? There are only mitzvot.

Was the Jew conscious that he or she had performed a mitzvah when a visit to a sick relative took place? Perhaps not, perhaps they know on some sub-conscious level the act is a mitzvah. Yet if we live our lives in such a way that the day-to-day behaviors are consistent with Jewish ethics, then our lifestyle choices become second nature. The mitzvot becomes involuntary to the Jew who has embraced an ethical Jewish life.

The Theology of Secular Judaism

            Is it not an oxymoron to call upon the term “theology” when discussing Jewish secularism? This is where we get to obliterate stereotyping the secular Jew. Are secular Jews Atheists and Agnostics? Let us turn to one of our greatest forerunners of secular Jewish thought: Baruch Spinoza, in his Theological Political Treatise we see that Spinoza is a Pantheist. G-d is in everything and there is nothing outside the world that is transient. The world is God therefore they are inter-exchangeable. This is not atheism. [8] On the other hand, a secular Jew might say G-d is totally imminent. Or perhaps a secular Jew might say G-d could be described as completely transcendent and therefore shares nothing with the world, thus making G-d abstract.

The Pew study does not in any way designate a specific shred of theology.

It may show that Reform is 35%, but does that 35% believe the Torah is divine? Are there Reform Jews who view the Torah as a cultural text? Pew does not break down the individual beliefs, only the delineation of how many identify with a sect. This is not useful data because it is too ambiguous.


I have personally met Orthodox Jews who are strictly observant and claim to be Atheist. They pledge their commitment to the act of honoring their ancestors, not the G-d of Judaism. Thus the mitzvot they perform may appear to be religious, yet the intent behind it is not. This makes the mitzvah (or practice) secular in its intent.

The Flaw of The Pew Institute

The Pew study does not reveal the percentage of secular humanist Jews. To be clear, I realize there are secular humanistic Jews who could be mapped through the Pew study because there are congregations who define themselves as such. This could create yet another sect and cut into the pie chart. Indeed, this would not be a difficult task and should be integrated into the data. Secular humanistic Judaism has been an unofficial fifth arm of Judaism. [9] Yet representing those congregations is another issue altogether for a different type of paper.

However, I am suggesting the Pew study address the Jews who are not affiliated with a synagogue of any type, but quantify them as secular Jews. Is this not a direct conflict and extra complication to say there are congregations who distinctly call themselves secular humanistic Jews, while simultaneously saying there are Jews who are not in any synagogue because they are secular? No, and here is why:

According to the SHJ (Secular Humanistic Judaism), there are twenty-seven secular humanistic Jewish congregations in the United States, which are affiliated under the leadership of this organization. [10] This is to say nothing of the secular humanistic Jewish congregations who are neither affiliated members of the SHJ, nor the URJ (Union for Reform Judaism). An example of a non-affiliated secular humanistic Jewish congregation would be Congregation Beth Adam of Cincinnati Ohio. Pew neither reveals the numbers of secular humanistic Jewish congregations, nor the number of Jews who are secular non-affiliates. If Pew would make it a priority to provide this necessary research and meaningful data, the Jewish community in America could begin to do something very important.

American Jewry could explore possibilities for continuity and integration into Judaism. American Judaism could cease the act of bifurcating secular from religious and examine the totality of a clearer picture with an accurate account of what American Jewry looks like in actuality, not in theory. This assertion could be the beginning to a myriad of solutions. Solutions to what, does American Jewry have a problem? I cannot answer such a question, however I can assert that unifying all Jews is to the benefit of Judaism.

The Cyber Jewish Community

            I have already suggested that the Pew Institute give representation to secular humanistic Jewish congregations and to quantify secular Jews who do not attend synagogue (because they are still Jewish). Yet there is another category that is so vast, Pew would have to create a whole new division to address the incalculable amount of Jews who live their Jewish life exclusively in the cyber world. I am now referring to Jewish websites, blogs and social media. More academic research would be needed to deepen the span of questions to understand cyber Judaism. In order to create a digestible case study for this untapped group, I will use my own preliminary research on the cyber Jewish community. Although it is anecdotal, the lack of source material for this particular matter says a great deal. It is the absence of what is not in the Pew data that prompts this line of questioning. For example: Out of all of my Facebook “friends”, there are over two hundred of them who identify as Jewish and I have never met them in my entire life. They live on every continent, in every time zone and I have more interaction with them, than my real-life synagogue community. I belong to thirteen Jewish oriented groups on Facebook. Each of these groups has anywhere from ten members to 10,000 members. This is to say nothing of the thirty “pages” I follow which are a conglomeration of Jewish blogs, websites and organizations. These pages I follow, each contain thousands of followers. Now factor in the number of Jewish figureheads or personalities I follow, which is around fifteen and consider the hundreds and thousands of followers each of them have. Do you see the infinite web of Jewish identity that is splitting at the seams? I am only one person who has the ability to practice Judaism in a whole new, undefined way. By interacting with social media, a Jew can receive education on simple to complex levels about numerous facets within Judaism. A Jew can connect with other Jews and experience Jewish life in a way that is just as meaningful as sitting in a synagogue. One can follow the teachings of Rabbi’s, become an activist in Zionistic causes, expand their Jewish recipes, learn Hebrew online and remain a cultural Jew.

Here is an even more perplexing context for this cyber Jewish matter: Imagine the Jews who are already in the pie chart with a religious delineation. Take for example Chabad. Are they absorbed into the Orthodox tent of Pew or are they a separate sect? Perhaps they should be there own sect and for ample reason. I will use Chabad as a basis for comprehending the vastness of one singular Jewish cyber community.

Not only does Chabad have a website and Facebook page, but they have their own apps. Moreover, they have multiple Facebook pages to represent each of their communities. According to Chabad-Lubavitch, there are 4,000 emissary families that oversee 3,300 institutions. [11] This is physical space I am talking about- the real world, bricks and mortar. This does not represent the thousands of Facebook “followers” on each individual Chabad page.

The same could be said of endless non-religious Jewish entities. Take the popular United With Israel; they boast three million supporters. [12] The Jewish Daily Forward currently has over 60,000 “likes” and My Jewish Learning has over 48,000 “likes.” [13] The “likes” represent those who receive continuous information in their newsfeed about these entities. This is non-stop, 24-hour, 365-days-a-year information in your hands with no effort. The “synagogue without walls concept” is already here, it is alive and well and living on the Internet.

I assert that social media, blogs and websites have done more for global Jewry than any movement or denomination in all of Judaism. Synagogues now have live streaming for their Shabbat services and High Holidays. This means if you are a congregation of two hundred, you can expand your audience to a thousand or more. My meager findings alone prove that The Pew Institute is providing outdated, vague, ambiguous data, which does not capture the state of American Jewry. I unabashedly make the claim that Judaism is not dying- it is growing rapidly at a pace that Pew simply has not been able to wrap its arms around. In my digest section I claim that apathy is the demise of American Jewry, not being non-religious or non-affiliate. Pew is missing the thousands of Jews who practice cyber communal Judaism. Out of the multiple questions posited on a Pew survey, they are not asking the right questions.

How Does Pew Work?

            On July 2, 2013 Pew released a polling and analysis report, which stated the following: [14]

                        The new, nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center’s

                        Forum on Religion & Public Life asked Americans whether

                        having “more people who are not religious” is a good thing,

                        a bad thing, or doesn’t matter for American society. Many

                        more say it is bad than good (48% versus 11%). But about

                        four-in-ten (39%) say it does not make much difference. Even                                             among adults who do not identify with any religion, only about

                        a quarter (24%) say the trend is good, while nearly as many

                        say it is bad (19%); a majority (55%) of the unaffiliated say

                        it does not make much difference for society.


The most disconcerting element to this data is that Pew goes on to disclose the religious affiliations of those who participated in this particular study. I could not find one labeled “Jew.”

On October 1, 2013 Pew released another polling and analysis report called A Portrait of Jewish Americans. This is one of the few times I have discovered where Pew touches on self-identification as a secular Jew. [15]


Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America, and

                        most U.S. Jews seem to recognize this: 62% say being Jewish

                        is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while just 15%

                        say it is mainly a matter of religion. Even among Jews by

                        religion, more than half (55%) say being Jewish is mainly

                        a matter of ancestry and culture, and two-thirds say it is

                        not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.


My purpose for quoting this portion of the study is to demonstrate that Pew is cognizant of the idea of non-religious Jews, but they do not know how to address it, quantify it or bring tangible meaningful data to their polling and analysis.

The only source I could find who attacks Pew, was posted in My Jewish Learning. An article written by J.J. Goldberg stated the following about Pew research on American Jewry: “Besides, we know a great deal about what non-religious Jews don’t do or believe, but very little about what they do. Nearly all the survey tools for measuring Jewish behavior describe religious rituals.” [16] According to Goldberg, “Pew counted 6.3 million Jews this year (2013). It also offers a second possible figure, 6.7 million, which includes children who are being raised Jewish “and something else.” He also goes on to quote Brown University sociologist, Sidney Goldstein, who in 1990 wrote in the 1992 American Jewish Year Book: “more likely that the core population will decline toward 5.0 million and possibly even below it in the early decades of the 21st century.” [17]

Yet, here we are at 6.7 million in the U.S. …

My question for Pew is this: If one fifth of American Jewry says they have no religion, yet identify themselves as Jewish, what does that mean in the scope of its data? Pew does not know what to do with this, thus they do nothing at all. They have failed to not only ask the proper, more specific questions, but they do not comprehend that Judaism stands on its own with a secular component. As indicated in this paper, the appropriate questions should include: Do you light Hanukkah candles? Have you ever sent your child on a sponsored trip to Israel through a Jewish philanthropic entity? Do you belong to a JCC (Jewish Community Center)? Tapping that research, while including the expression of secular, cyber Judaism is a whole new Judaism without representation.


            If the Pew Institute were to act on this information and conduct new methodologies on polling and analysis in order to publish accurate, relevant statistical data, what would the American Jewish community do when they discovered that Judaism is not dying, it is thriving- just not in the synagogue. Are Jewish leaders prepared to step into the cyber arena and cultivate those secular Jews who live a Jewish life online? Are they prepared to dedicate resources to connect with those Jews who have found a home in front of their computers and hand held devices?

Based on my cyber Jewish life, it is far more exciting than my real life Jewish existence in my synagogue community. I have included a list of my personal favorite Jewish groups via Facebook. The only way for this paper to have any meaning or carry any weight is to visit these pages on social media. Think of it as a field trip, only instead of getting in your car and driving to different synagogues or Jewish community centers, you are touring the pages of Facebook and blogs dedicated to secular Jewish life. It would not take long for any Jew, religious or secular to quickly find a niche of where they fit in and what they can omit from their personal Jewish experience.

I must ask the most apparent question of all in this examination: What is so attractive to secular Jews about the cyber Jewish experience? I have no data for this either. Perhaps they feel safe because there is a certain amount of autonomy that comes with the Internet. Maybe it is the fact that the individual can control how much or how little they participate because there is no expectation.

Indeed, there is something beautiful and enticing about being a part of a Jewish community that promotes flexibility and is so far ahead of the learning curve on matters such as pluralism. Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Secular all coexist in this space without physical designation. We communicate honestly and learn from one another. We have the opportunity to learn so much about multi-faceted Judaism and each day we break down stereotypes, we destroy age-old Jewish archetypes and the tropes we have been taught have no authority in the Jewish cyber world. They exist, but one can avoid it easily, if they so choose.

Perhaps that is another lure, we choose. We know we are the “chosen” people, but the secular cyber Jewish community demonstrates what it truly means to be the “choosing” people.


            There is a dearth of source material to build the construct for my argument. As I mentioned earlier, it is this fact that lends weight to my argument. All of the research data I found on American Judaism was devoid of specific data on secular humanistic Jewish congregations, secular Jews who do not attend a synagogue and the absent yet titanic, prodigious category of cyber Jews. A broader Pew study could remedy much of what I have discovered. I will assert that my findings are good news and should encourage the Jewish community of America to take heart and get on the Internet. Judaism always has and always will find a way to survive, even if that includes reinventing itself, entirely as a new community. I have laid out three unaccounted categories in this paper. 1) The secular humanistic Jewish congregant. 2) The secular Jew with no synagogue affiliation. 3) The secular cyber Jew. What is most critical in my examination of these three groups is that they all practice secular Judaism.

 List of Jewish Websites, Blogs and Facebook Groups:

Hevria (blog)

Progressive Zionists (Facebook)

United With Israel (Website)

My Jewish Learning (Website)

Stand With Us (Facebook)

Times of Israel (Online journal and blog)

Israellycool (Blog)

The Accidental Talmudist (Facebook)

Zeek (Jewish cultural journal)



Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Study Bible, Eds. (New York, Oxford        University Press, 2004)


David, Biale. Not in the Heavens, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,      2010)


David, Biale. “Jewish Secularism.” Lecture, The New School, New York, New York.


Chabad Lubavitch.     Chabad-Lubavitch.htm (Retrieved March 24, 2015).



J.J. Goldberg. Pew Study About Jewish America got it all Wrong, The Jewish Daily            Forward, October 13, 2013.


Asher, Knight. Drawing Boundaries and Limiting Elasticity: What Did the Reform             Movement Learn from Beth Adam’s Membership Application to the UAHC?

            Rabbinic Thesis for HUC-JIR, 2007.


Pew Research Center. July 2, 2013. Growth of the Non-Religious.   culture-survey/ (Retrieved April 2, 2015).



Pew Research Center. October 1, 2013. A Portrait of Jewish Americans.            culture-survey/ (Retrieved April 2, 2015).


Secular Humanistic Judaism. “Find A Community.”    (Retrieved March 29, 2015).


Baruch, Spinoza. Theological Political Treatise (Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett             Publishing Company, Inc., 2001)


United With Israel. “About Us.” (Retrieved April      1, 2015.


[1] Pew Study, June 2014. (Pie chart p.16)

[2] Biale, David, Not in the Heavens (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010) 59.

[3] Biale, David, “Jewish Secularism.” The New School. Manhattan, New York. June 13, 2011.

[4] Biale, lecture.

[5] The Jewish Study Bible, Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler. (New York, Oxford University Press, 2004), 436.

[6] Biale, lecture

[7] Biale, lecture

[8] Spinoza, Baruch, Theological Political Treatise (Indianapolis, Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2001) 72.

[9] Kight, Asher, “Drawing Boundaries and Limiting Elasticity: What Did the Reform Movement Learn from Beth Adam’s Membership Application to the UAHC?” (Rabbinic dissertation, HUC-JIR, 2007), footnote 92, 81.

[10] “Find A Community,” retrieved March 29, 2015. Secular Humanistic Judaism.

[11] “About Chabad Lubavitch,” retrieved March 24, 2015.

[12] “About Us,” retrieved April 1, 2015. United With Israel.

[13] Facebook data taken April 4, 2015. (Anyone with a Facebook account can access this information, but it changes daily.)

[14] Pew Research Center, (July 2, 2013). [Growth of the Non-Religious]. Retrieved April 1, 2015.

[15] Pew Research Center, (October 1, 2013). [A Portrait of Jewish Americans]. Retrieved April 2, 2015.

[16] Goldberg, J. “Pew Study About Jewish America got it all Wrong”. The Jewish Daily Forward, October 13, 2013. Retrieved March 28, 2015.

[17] Goldberg.


About jewess

I am a Judaic Studies academic who loves all facets of Jewry. I am at my core and artistic being, as I am a classically trained pianist and composer. I love aesthetics and my dog. I am a misanthrope, but try to be kind to everyone.
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