In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche declared that God was dead. He was speaking figuratively, of course, about the Western world’s loss of religious faith. Although distrustful of religion himself, Nietzsche’s dramatic declaration reflected genuine concern. If we’ve abandoned our faith in God, is modern life without a universal source of meaning?
More than a century later, many of us still stand in the shadow of Nietzsche’s prophecy. Having eaten from the tree of secular knowledge, we’ve been cast out from the familiar garden of our ancestors’ beliefs. The Jewish people, in particular, have chosen modern life over the shtetl (the Old World Jewish village), and for good reason. But something feels like it’s missing: a meaningful connection to our roots.
I’m what is known as a secular Jew. I speak Hebrew, had a Bar Mitzvah and was educated at a Jewish school. But I have trouble following the First Commandment—I can’t say I believe in God. I believe in science, independent thought and the prevalence of reason over faith. And yet, I am proud of my Judaism, or at least I want to be.
It would appear that I’m in good company. The institution that 34th Street and Uncyclopedia call the “Jewniversity” of Pennsylvania is no stranger to the Hebrews, and many of us come from a predominantly secular background. Campus organizations such as Hillel and Chabad provide supportive environments for us to be ourselves—havens that Jews worldwide still depend on—and encourage students to reconnect with their heritage.
Some of us, though, face a particularly acute crisis of identity: how can we embrace our Judaism when we can’t subscribe to its most fundamental religious principles?
Many respond by referring to themselves as “cultural” Jews, but that often feels like a cop out. There is something hollow about the tokens of Judaism sans faith: it often seems as though our sense of identity has been reduced to lox and bagels, Woody Allen, and swearing in Yiddish. While these are all delightful in their own ways, calling people schmucks and rare trips to synagogue do not a culture make. The generations before us were American Jews; are we simply Americans of Jewish descent?
All children and grandchildren of immigrants face the issue of how strongly to assimilate and how much of their original culture to preserve. But as Jews, we find ourselves in a somewhat unusual position. We have been wandering as long as we can remember—the narrative of strangers in a strange land is central to our cultural consciousness. Our connection to our homeland was severed 2,000 years ago, and even before then was buffeted by the dominant cultures of Assyria, Babylon, Greece and Rome. We are a people of the Diaspora.
The core of Jewish culture has little to do with cuisine, music or dress—these things have morphed throughout the ages with every new people we encountered. Rather, one of Judaism’s distinctive and longstanding features has been its emphasis on literacy and education, and a tradition of rigorous debate. For every two Jews, as they say, there are at least three opinions.
In one of the Old Testament’s most memorable allegories, Jacob wrestles an angel and earns his title as he who wrestles with God (“Israel” in Hebrew). Together with peace and justice, Judaism encourages questioning and prizes critical, independent thinking. The story of Jacob serves for modern Jews as a metaphor for wrestling with the unfathomable, even at the risk of prevailing over our ancestors’ beliefs—or, even worse, over God himself.
In a consumer society that often values appearance over substance, it is hardly surprising that our appreciation of our own traditions has grown superficial, that our roots have begun to wither. What we need is to get back in touch with our intellectual heritage—to understand Judaism not as a collection of divine dos and don’ts, but as an ongoing existential and ethical dialogue that evolves across generations. Our cultural legacy is, at its core, a philosophical one.
Our ancestors’ theistic beliefs might be questionable, but what endures throughout Jewish history is an unwavering pursuit of truth and meaning—a quest for a kind of holiness that we, as secularists, can embrace.
Jonathan Iwry is a College senior from Bethesda, Md., studying philosophy. His last name is pronounced "eev-ree." Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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