Living in the Secular World

Living in a Secular World

Dov Gartenberg


In this week’s portion, Moses recalls the Israelite difficulties in the wilderness and his reassurances to a faltering congregation.


“None other than the Lord your God, who goes before you, will fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt, before your very eyes, and in the wilderness, where you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you traveled until you came to this place.  Yet for all that, you have no faith in the Lord your God. (ain’chem ma’aminim ba’Adonai Elohaichem). (Deuteronomy 1:30-32)


If the generation of the wilderness could not sustain faith with a God  how much the  more so for us in our disbelieving times.


One of the realities I face as a teacher of Torah is that I cannot assume that the encounters with God language by a modern learner are easily absorbed or understood.  What is it like for a Jewish person who is not religious to read Torah language like this?  She might say to the last line that, “I am like that generation. I can’t summon faith in this God. (She may also get tripped up on the patriarchal metaphor as well.)


I am a rabbi living in a secular age and a secular society. The  people I teach are secular Jews.  Last week in Torah in the Tongass a participant who was asked if he was a secular Jew replied with the answer, “What is that?`’  He had no self-identity as a secular Jew and did not know what it meant.   We are all in some ways secular Jews, but perhaps we don’t appreciate what that means and how we got there.


The definition of secular is

a : of or relating to the worldly or temporal <secular concerns>

b : not overtly or specifically religious <secular music>

c : not ecclesiastical or clerical <secular courts> <secular landowners>


In what way is a secular Jew worldly?  Does the secular Jew live only in the temporal world and has no interest in the eternal world?   Many people tell me that they are not religious, but rarely do they say I am secular.  This definition of secular does not get us very far.


David Brooks, this week wrote a column about the work of Charles Taylor, a contemporary philosopher, and his important book, The Secular Age.  It is a work that has important for my development as a rabbi. .


“Taylor’s investigation begins with this question: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say 1500, in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy but even inescapable?” That is, how did we move from the all encompassing sacred cosmos, to our current world in which faith is a choice, in which some people believe, others don’t and a lot are in the middle?”


From <>


Taylor rejects the simplistic notion that the scientific revolution simply replaced the premodern religious outlook.  He does simplify Taylor’s insightful portrayal of the reality of the alternatives to religion in modernity.


“These achievements did make it possible to construct a purely humanistic account of the meaningful life. It became possible for people to conceive of meaningful lives in God-free ways — as painters in the service of art, as scientists in the service of knowledge.

 But, Taylor continues, these achievements also led to more morally demanding lives for everybody, believer and non believer. Instead of just fitting docilely into a place in the cosmos, the good person in secular society is called upon to construct a life in the universe. She’s called on to exercise all her strength.

 People are called to greater activism, to engage in more reform. Religious faith or non-faith becomes more a matter of personal choice as part of a quest for personal development.”


Unlike the secular extremists such as Richard Dawkins, Taylor does believe that religion has creatively adapted in many cases to the modern reality by a clearer focus on the essential questions left open to the religious impulse.


“People are now able to pursue fullness in an amazing diversity of different ways. But Taylor observes a general pattern. They tend not to want to live in a world closed off from the transcendent, reliant exclusively on the material world. We are not, Taylor suggests, sliding toward pure materialism.


We are, instead, moving toward what he calls a galloping spiritual pluralism. People in search of fullness are able to harvest the intellectual, cultural and spiritual gains of the past 500 years.”


That spiritual pluralism is the most striking fact of our reality.  Taylor also analyzes the checkered history of the secular age and the rise of extreme forms of secularity (Nazism for example).  We know that modernity can defeat many people.   The myriad of choices, the profusion of entertainments, the ease of access to addictive pursuits, the extreme rejection of any authority leads to personal confusion, self-isolation, and lives of meaninglessness  for many people in our society.


One of the important conversations for Jewish folks is the interaction between secular and Jewish religious choices.  How do we make sense of Torah or passages at the top of this passage?  What does it mean to live a good life?  How does Judaism help us live lives of greater activism and make wise choices in a world defined by endless choosing.  How can we affirm when our default is doubt?


As a teacher I am always ready to continue this conversation. It is an essential conversation for living and constructing a meaningful life.


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